The Republican leading the probe of Hunter Biden has his own shell company and complicated friends

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Rep. James Comer boasts of being one of the largest landholders near his rural Kentucky hometown, and he has meticulously documented nearly all of his holdings on congressional financial disclosure documents – roughly 1,600 acres in all.

But there are six acres that he bought in 2015 and co-owns with a longtime campaign contributor that he has treated differently, transferring his ownership to Farm Team Properties, a shell company he co-owns with his wife.

Interviews and records reviewed by The Associated Press provide new insights into the financial deal, which risks undercutting the force of some of Comer’s central arguments in his impeachment inquiry of President Joe Biden.

In particular, Comer has attacked some Biden family members, including the president’s son Hunter, over their use of “shell companies” that appear designed to obscure millions of dollars in earnings they received from shadowy middlemen and foreign interests.

Such companies typically exist only on paper and are formed to hold an asset, like real estate. Their opaque structures are often designed to help hide ownership of property and other assets.

The companies used by the Bidens are already playing a central role in the impeachment investigation, which is expected to gain velocity after House Republicans voted Wednesday to formally authorize the probe. The vote follows the federal indictment last week of Biden’s son Hunter on charges he engaged in a scheme to avoid paying taxes on his earnings through the companies.

But Comer's high-profile role has also drawn attention to his own finances and relationships, including his ties to prominent figures from his hometown who have complicated pasts not all that dissimilar to some of those caught up in his Biden probe.

Comer declined to comment through a spokesman, but has aggressively denied any wrongdoing in establishing a shell company, calling criticisms the kind of thing “only dumb, financially illiterate people pick up on.”

The AP found that Farm Team Properties functions in a similarly opaque way as the companies used by the Bidens, masking his stake in the land that he co-owns with the donor from being revealed on his financial disclosure forms, which states the company is worth as much as $1 million.

It’s not clear why Comer decided to put those six acres in a shell company, or what other assets Farm Team Properties may hold.

Ethics experts say House rules require members of Congress to disclose all assets held by such companies that are worth more than $1,000.

“It seems pretty clear to me that he should be disclosing the individual land assets that are held by” the shell company, said Delaney Marsco, a senior attorney who specializes in congressional ethics at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center in Washington.

Comer created the company in 2017 to hold his stake in the six acres that he purchased two years earlier in a joint venture with Darren Cleary, a major campaign contributor and construction contractor from Monroe County, Kentucky, where the congressman was born and raised.

Cleary did not respond to an interview request. But the two have offered mutual praise for each other over the years, including Comer having called Cleary “my friend” and “the epitome of a successful businessperson” from the House floor.

Cleary, his businesses and family have donated roughly $70,000 to Comer’s various campaigns, records show.

At the time he and Comer entered their venture, Cleary was selling an acre of his family’s land to Kentucky so it could build a highway bypass near Tompkinsville, which was completed in 2020. He sold Comer a 50% stake for $128,000 in six acres he owned that would end up being adjacent to the highway.

Comer, a powerful political figure in this rural part of Kentucky, announced his bid for Congress days after purchasing the land.

Farm Team Properties has also become more valuable. On Comer’s financial disclosure forms, it has risen in value from between $50,000 and $100,000 in 2016 to between $500,001 and $1 million in 2022, records show.

As House Oversight Committee chairman, Comer has presented himself as a bipartisan ethics crusader only interested in uncovering the truth. As evidence, he has pointed to a long career as a state legislator and official who sought to build bridges with Democrats.

Interviews with allies, critics and constituents, however, reveal a fierce partisan who has ignored wrongdoing by friends and supporters if they can help him advance in business and politics.

“The Jamie Comer I knew was light and sunshine and looking for common ground. Now he’s Nixonian,” said Adam Edelen, a former Democratic state auditor and friend, comparing the lawmaker to a disgraced former president who resigned from office amid the Watergate scandal.

In Comer’s telling, he is a man of self-made wealth who founded his first farm while still enrolled at Western Kentucky University and shrewdly invested in land. He also cut his teeth in the bare-knuckled machine politics of Monroe County, Kentucky, and knew how to win allies, according to those who knew him.

When he was barely out of high school, Comer was writing campaign checks to state politicians, including a $4,000 contribution to a Republican candidate for governor in 1990, according to campaign finance disclosures published in local news stories.

Comer followed in the footsteps of his paternal grandfather, Harlin Comer, who was a leading figure in local Republican politics.

When Harlin Comer died in 1993, the 21-year-old Comer took over as chairman of the Monroe County GOP. A wave of indictments against local Republican office holders, some of whom helped launch Comer’s political career and became close friends, soon followed.

Mitchell Page and Larry Pitcock were among those charged in the sweep. Page, then the county’s chief executive, and Pitcock, the former county clerk, were sentenced in 1996 to 18 months in prison for tampering with a state computer database so that they and their families could avoid paying vehicle taxes.

Comer has remained close to the men, who did not respond to requests for comment. He praised Page on the House floor in 2020 for his “principled leadership.”

Pitcock and his family members, meanwhile, have donated about $9,000 to Comer’s political campaigns and held one of Comer’s first fundraisers when he ran to become state agriculture commissioner, records show. Comer dismissed questions about the propriety of having Pitcock sponsor a fundraiser for him, noting to CN2 News that it helped him raise nearly $60,000.

In 2011, a voter fraud case roiled local politics and swept up Billy Proffitt, Comer’s longtime friend and former college roommate. Proffitt pleaded guilty in December 2011 and was sentenced to probation.

A few years later, Proffitt came to Comer’s defense from allegations that nearly derailed the future congressman’s political career.

During the 2015 Republican primary for governor, the Louisville Courier-Journal received a letter from a former college girlfriend, in which she asserted that Comer had hit her and that their relationship had been “toxic."

Proffitt, however, told the newspaper that he had never seen Comer be abusive toward Thomas.

“That doesn’t sound like Jamie at all,” said Proffitt, using Comer’s nickname.

Comer ended up losing the race by 83 votes. But the two remain close friends and business associates.

Profitt’s family’s real estate company is spearheading the efforts to sell the land held by Farm Team Properties.