The respected national media outlet Politico lost no time latching onto an issue that made a brief splash last year and is now sending ripples into the presidential race.
"Newsweek in 2011: Ryan would benefit from his own energy policies," an item published August 11, just two hours after GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney announced his pick of Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate.
The June 2011 article by Newsweek/The Daily Beast, which other media are also exhuming, alleges that Ryan stands to profit from tax breaks and subsidies to highly profitable oil and gas companies included in his famous proposed austerity budget. That's because of Ryan's ties to Oklahoma-based businesses that are leasing mining and drilling rights to several large companies engaged in natural gas fracking.
Ryan's latest financial disclosure report (PDF), filed in May, shows that he and his wife, Janna, have an ownership interest in four businesses run by his father-in-law, Daniel Little. The businesses are AVA O Limited Co. (mining and mineral rights), Blondie & Brownie LLC (gravel rights), Red River Pine Co. (timber rights) and Little Land Co. (oil and gas).
Based on reported ranges, these holdings and Ryan's investment in "Mineral Rights, Oklahoma" were worth between $352,000 and $830,000 at the end of 2011. They generated between $45,000 and $145,000 in income that year, the report shows.
A review of these reports over the five years going back to 2007 shows that Ryan and his wife have made between $201,000 and $587,000 from the investments.
Ryan's proposed budget aside, he has repeatedly voted to preserve breaks to oil and gas companies. One such vote was cast in May 2011, a week after Ryan agreed with a speaker at a town hall meeting who called for an end to these subsidies. That sparked a League of Conservation Voters ad accusing Ryan of "protecting big oil profits, lining his own pockets."
Ryan's support for subsidies that arguably benefit him draws a pointed response from Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, a nonpartisan advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.
"Without a doubt this is a very serious conflict of interest," Holman says. "He's making himself rich off his own budget proposals."
Holman, an expert on congressional ethics, says it is rare to see a conflict "this obvious and this large," but doubts it constitutes a violation of the rules. That's because the rules, in his view, are porous enough to drive even a large conflict through.
Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, another Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, agrees. "Unless you're voting for something that will benefit only you or your family, it's going to be okay," Sloan says. "I'm not saying what Mr. Ryan is doing is fine. I'm saying the Ethics Committee would not likely find it a conflict."
The House ethics committee's rule (PDF) on personal financial transactions says members "may not use their congressional position for personal financial benefit." But it also advises that members may vote on matters that affect "a class or people or entities, as distinct from individuals." Translates Sloan: "Members can get away with almost anything."
In the past, Ryan's staff members have deflected inquiries about his personal finances. "Our office doesn''t comment on the financial disclosures any further than what is available publicly," Smythe Anderson, a spokeswoman with Ryan's congressional office, emailed in response to one inquiry. Another Ryan spokesperson told Newsweek/The Daily Beast, "These are properties that Congressman Ryan married into" and does not have "a lot of control over."
Anderson referred inquiries about Ryan's investments and his position on oil and gas subsidies to Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Ryan's vice presidential campaign, who did not respond to email messages.
Bill Lueders (email@example.com) is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. The project, a partnership with MapLight, is supported by the Open Society Institute.
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