(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — House Oversight and Accountability Committee Chair James Comer on Monday previewed his priorities for this Congress, which he says will include a heavy focus on the handling of classified documents, the origins of the COVID-19 virus, and what he described as possible “influence peddling” by Hunter Biden.
The Kentucky Republican addressed reporters and the public at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., taking audience questions and vowing to lead a “substantive committee.”
The panel will begin its work this session with a hearing Wednesday that will examine potential fraud and abuse of federal pandemic relief dollars, including small business loans and unspent funds left over in federal accounts.
“Unfortunately, over the last two years, there hasn’t been a single hearing in the Oversight Committee dealing with the pandemic spending, even though [the federal government] spent record amounts of money. That’s very concerning. I feel like we’re two years behind in oversight. So we’re gonna have to go back two years to try to get caught up,” Comer said.
The Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis under Democratic control during last Congress held hearings including on efforts to prevent pandemic relief fraud and examining anti-poverty pandemic initiatives.
For example, issues have surfaced after the Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP loans, that were meant to keep struggling business owners afloat during the economic tumult of the global pandemic.
About 92% of those loans have been forgiven partially or in full, including the funds given to wealthy companies, according to an analysis of Small Business Administration data by NPR.
Reflecting on recent scandals involving classified government material found in the homes and personal offices of former and current U.S. leaders, Comer said Republicans and Democrats alike “all agree there’s a problem.”
After disclosures this month that classified documents were located in President Joe Biden’s think tank office and home, Comer sent letters to the White House and the U.S. Secret Service, requesting more information about who might have had access to the material.
Comer told the press Monday that the White House and the committee have not yet discussed a time to meet about the matter.
“We have to reform the way that documents are boxed up when they leave the president and vice president’s office and follow them in the private sector,” he said.
The committee, as soon as this week, plans to meet with the general counsel for the National Archives and Records Administration, the agency tasked with managing presidential documents.
Comer said he “wasn’t alarmed” by the news that Biden had classified documents in his Penn Biden Center office dating back to his vice presidency and in his Delaware home dating back to his days in the Senate. Department of Justice officials searched Biden’s home earlier this month, in what the president said was a voluntary search.
“I just thought it was ironic that the president was quick to call Donald Trump irresponsible for his handling of classified documents, and then he has the same thing happen,” Comer said.
The FBI in August executed a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago, former President Donald Trump’s Florida home and private club, and found about 100 documents with classified markings out of thousands searched.
“When Mar-a-Lago was raided, I went on TV… and I said ‘Look, this has been rumored to have been a problem with many former presidents about inadvertently taking documents,’” Comer said.
Pennsylvanians on the Committee
One of the panel’s Republican members, U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, R-10th District, had his cell phone seized by federal agents after they executed the warrant at Trump’s Florida residence. Perry, who has faced scrutiny for his role in efforts to overturn the 2020 election results, complained to Fox News at the time that investigators “made no attempt to contact my lawyer, who would have made arrangements for them to have my phone if that was their wish.”
On Jan. 17, Perry tweeted that he was “honored to be on the House Oversight Committee – boy do I have some questions.”
Honored to be on the House Oversight Committee — boy do I have some questions.
— RepScottPerry (@RepScottPerry) January 18, 2023
Four days later, on Jan. 21, Perry tweeted again, noting that “Democrats get ‘searched,’ Republicans get raided’ — an apparent reference to news that classified documents had been found at an office and home of President Joe Biden. Former Vice President Mike Pence also later said that he had located a small number of classified documents at his Indiana home.
In both cases, Pence and Biden cooperated with law enforcement, compared to Trump who fought to keep the documents found at his private club.
Democrats get “searched.” Republicans get raided.
— RepScottPerry (@RepScottPerry) January 22, 2023
Another Pennsylvania lawmaker, newly elected U.S. Rep. Summer Lee, D-12th District, also has been named to serve on the panel.
“For too long, our government has put profit over people–the priorities of the rich and powerful over the working class. If we want a government that truly delivers justice for all, we’ve got to unrig the system,” Lee said in a statement. “I’m honored to join the powerful House Oversight and Accountability Committee, where I’ll fight corruption, expose corporate greed, and go toe to toe with white supremacist super-villains trying to exploit your tax dollars to peddle hate-for-profit.”
Biden family probe
However, Comer repeatedly said his committee will be taking aim at Biden — not solely over classified documents, but over whether the president benefited from his Yale-educated lawyer son Hunter’s business dealings with foreign powers.
Hunter Biden once sat on the board of the Ukrainian energy company Burisma and became connected with a Chinese energy tycoon who was later reportedly detained as part of an anti-corruption investigation.
“We’re investigating the president — this isn’t a Hunter Biden investigation, he’s a person of interest in the investigation of Joe Biden,” Comer said.
The White House has characterized the investigation as a conspiracy theory.
Another issue that Comer said he hopes will be bipartisan: the origins of the COVID-19 virus.
A select committee to examine the topic will be housed under the Committee on Oversight and Accountability.
“No Republicans are accusing Democrats of starting COVID-19. We’re wondering if COVID-19 started in the Wuhan (China) lab, so no one said ‘Oh, that was started by a Democrat.’ But for whatever reason there were never any bipartisan hearings on the origination of COVID,” Comer said. “… It should be bipartisan. Hopefully this won’t be a select committee like (the) January 6th (select committee), which was considered overtly partisan.”
A March 2021 report by the World Health Organization found that it was “likely to very likely” that an animal host carried the virus and transmitted it to humans, but a source was not definitively identified. The United States and several other countries expressed concern about delays and access to data used in the report.
For all of its wide-ranging examinations, there are two topics the Oversight Committee won’t be raising: the 2020 election results and police reform.
“At the end of the day, we’ve got our plate full with excessive spending and public corruption,” Comer said.
In light of this month’s brutal beating and death of Tyre Nichols by Memphis police, Comer said any discussion of police reform remains under the Judiciary Committee.
“We don’t want to reach into other committees’ areas of jurisdiction,” Comer said. “… Certainly there are bad apples in every profession, bad politicians, bad police officers, and they need to be held accountable.”
The Committee on Oversight and Accountability will hold its first full committee organization meeting at 11 a.m. Tuesday.
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