January 20, 2016 Government, In The News, News

Corker’s Top Contributors are Tenants in Building He Owns

Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

By: Will Tucker, OpenSecrets.org, January 20, 2016

The commercial building Sen. Bob Corker owns in Chattanooga, Tenn. has space for one restaurant, one retail store and at least three general offices. In one of the latter sits Corker’s largest source of campaign contributions over his career, Center for Responsive Politics data show.

Employees at the large southeastern law firm Miller and Martin PLLC have contributed$134,965 to Corker’s campaignssince 2006, when the Republican was first elected to the Senate, making the firm his top contributor and one of only five that have given him more than $100,000.

It also paid him rent in 2014: Corker earned between $1 million and $5 million in rental income from the building, where Miller and Martin has its company headquarters, according to the senator’s personal financial records and the firm’s website. It’s unknown how much rental income actually comes from the firm — a question that raises serious issues about how lawmakers are allowed to report their income, experts say. Lawmakers have no obligation to report exact dollar figures or how much income they receive per tenant in a building they own.

Corker first identified the building by address in his 2013 personal financial disclosure filing. Since then, the senator — who acquired two large real estate companies in Chattanooga before going on to serve as the city’s mayor from 2001-2005 — has received between $2 million and $10 million in rental income from the building, which he’s owned since 1997.

It’s not unusual for lawmakers to earn rental income or even have cozy relationships with their tenants. The level of Corker’s income from just one building, though, is uncommonly high, as is the level of campaign support the Tennessee politician is receiving from a tenant.

And the Senate last month unanimously confirmed one of the firm’s former employees, Travis Randall McDonough, as a federal judge in the Eastern District of Tennessee. Corker made a case for McDonough — a Democratic nominee — to his fellow senators on Dec. 7.

“I have known Travis personally for many years,” Corker said on the Senate floor. “[He] previously served as a partner at the law firm of Miller and Martin, where he specialized in criminal and white-collar litigation.”

Miller and Martin’s occupancy in the building predates Corker’s ownership. But the firm’s longstanding ties to Corker raise questions about the relationship, said Daniel Stevens, a spokesman for the Campaign for Accountability, a Washington-based ethics watchdog group.

“The key question is whether the firm is paying fair market value for the space it’s renting from Sen. Corker,” Stevens said.

An aide for Corker said the firm does pay fair market value for the space, but neither the aide nor Miller and Martin would provide a figure. Personal financial disclosure statements, which lawmakers must file annually, don’t require that information, nor the date on which the lease was last negotiated and signed.

Were a senator to over- or under-bill a tenant, the public would be hard-pressed to find evidence of it in public documents, because lawmakers are permitted to report income in wide ranges, rather than exact figures. Income of $1.1 million is reported the same way as income of $4.9 million: as being at least $1 million but less than $5 million.

Corker ranks as the sixth wealthiest senator, with a 2014 average estimated net worth of nearly $45.5 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics’ calculations.

After reviewing Corker’s relationship with Miller and Martin at the request ofOpenSecrets Blog,  Ken Boehm, chairman at the National Legal and Policy Center, another ethics watchdog group in Washington, pointed to the reporting ranges as being at issue.

“The original idea of greater transparency was a good one, but without more precise valuations, the goal of openness is not well-served,” Boehm said.

Corker already faces numerous questions about his financial disclosure. The Campaign for Accountability filed complaints against the senator with the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Senate Ethics Committee after theWall Street Journal found Corker didn’t report profits, as he’s required to do, from quick stock trades. Later, the Journal reported Corker didn’t reveal, at minimum, income of $2 million from hedge fund investments in Tennessee and millions he’d received from investments in commercial real estate. Corker amended the reports and has gone to great lengths to ensure their accuracy, a Corker aide said, including inviting a third-party firm to fully review previous filings.

An OpenSecrets Blog review of the amended reports showed nothing was changed in connection with the Volunteer Building, where Miller and Martin has its office.

Ethics experts in Washington also raised concerns about the ranges lawmakers are allowed to use to report their income after the reports about Corker’s finances.