By Alan Judd, AJC staff writer
Nathan Deal’s meeting with state revenue officials last year had not gone well. Deal, a congressman who would soon became a candidate for governor, was trying to save a government inspection program that paid his auto salvage business hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Participants later described the meeting with such words as “contentious” and “hostile.”
Nevertheless, at the end, one official apparently asked Deal for a favor: no more contact from Chris Riley.
The episode, recounted in documents from a congressional investigation, highlights Riley’s tenacity and his devotion to his long-time boss, the Republican who was elected Georgia’s governor last Tuesday.
It also serves as an example of how Riley, Deal’s top congressional aide since 1998, seems to have mixed public policy and private business while on the federal payroll.
Riley, 41, who will become the governor’s chief of staff in January, played a key role in several incidents of questionable ethics that nipped at Deal during the gubernatorial campaign. To facilitate Deal’s efforts to save the salvage business, which investigators say may have violated ethics rules, Riley set up meetings in Atlanta and sent e-mails to state officials from his U.S. House account.
Riley also has faced scrutiny for billing Deal’s airplane travel to a company owned by Riley’s wife.
He denies wrongdoing.
Riley is Deal’s closest adviser, his political guru, his confidant. For the governor-elect, Riley is pilot and, at times, de facto business agent, neighbor and debtor.
In perhaps the second most powerful job in the state Capitol, Riley will control access to the new governor, oversee hundreds of appointments to government jobs and serve as the conduit through which lawmakers, lobbyists and others try to influence Deal.
Deal, in announcing Riley’s role last week, described him as “the man who has led during this campaign, who has served me for many years.”
Riley’s appointment came as no surprise; Deal will be one of many Georgia governors to rely heavily on a loyalist to help run the government. Roy Barnes had Bobby Kahn. Zell Miller had Keith Mason. Jimmy Carter had Hamilton Jordan.
But Riley is intertwined with all but the most intimate aspects of Deal’s life. As he told congressional investigators last year, he “rarely allows [Deal] to go anywhere without him.”
Riley described his connection to Deal as close but respectful.
“We get along,” Riley said in an interview Friday. “We get along very well.
“Is he one of my best friends? Yes. Would he be a pallbearer at my funeral if I died today? Yes. But he’s my boss.”
The unusually strong bond between elected official and chief aide should have disqualified Riley from his new job, at least one ethics advocates said.
“Their relationship crossed the line from a personal relationship to a potentially conspiratorial relationship,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonpartisan watchdog group that last year named Deal one of the 15 most corrupt members of Congress. “On the federal dime, [Riley] had to be working on federal business all the time,” Sloan said. “It seems highly unlikely he was.”
Riley was a senior at Georgia Southern University in 1992 when his father called him home to Gainesville to help a family friend.
“My father instructed me I was coming home to volunteer for Nathan Deal’s campaign for Congress,” Riley said. “I did as my father instructed.”
Deal won the election, and Riley, 23 and a recent graduate, accompanied him to Washington as a legislative assistant. He hasn’t had another boss since.
Deal promoted Riley to chief of his congressional staff in 1998. Working from Gainesville, Riley supervised the congressman’s offices in Washington and in his sprawling North Georgia district, taking time off to manage Deal’s re-election campaigns. By 2008, his last full year on the federal payroll, Riley’s salary reached $163,000.
For Deal, Riley became “a partner in the journey,” one who “watches the details,” said state Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, who has known Riley since they played football together as children.
“They’re a great combination, with that history,” Collins said. “It’s almost like a working relationship between partners. The more you work together, you begin to have a chemistry.”
But Collins said the most obvious view of their relationship — at 68, Deal easily could be a father figure to Riley — is inaccurate.
“They have a mutual respect,” Collins said. “There is not a paternalistic aspect.”
Still, they are remarkably close. Riley even makes monthly loan payments to his boss.
Riley and his wife, Bambi, live in his childhood home in Gainesville. Around the corner, on property that once belonged to Riley’s family, is the primary residence of Deal and his wife, Sandra.
In 2003, Riley approached Deal about buying back an 11.6-acre parcel, and Deal agreed — and even financed the $175,000 transaction. In 2008, Deal financed a second transaction for $36,000 in which the Rileys purchased another 2.4 acres.
The sales prices and interest rate are fair, Riley said.
“We never thought it was anything other than what it was — and that was a legitimate owner-financed transaction,” Riley said.
Riley left Washington in 1995 to manage Deal’s re-election campaign. Although he remained in Gainesville after the election, Riley spent a great amount of time with Deal, often as his personal pilot.
Riley flew Deal to and from Washington and across the 9th Congressional District on flights arranged by Chattahoochee Logistics — a company based in Riley’s home and owned by his wife.
Chattahoochee Logistics collected more than $325,000 from Deal’s taxpayer-funded congressional office account from 2002 to 2008, U.S. House records show. In 2008, the company refunded more than $80,000 in overpayments detected by an internal audit.
Under House rules, members can be reimbursed for such flights on a per-mile basis. They may not make a profit, however, and may not purchase services from a staff member.
The payments to Chattahoochee Logistics covered only the actual cost of each flight, and no one earned a profit, Riley said. “It was not skirting any regulations.”
As a congressman, Deal also had business and personal interests to attend to. As chief of staff, Riley sometimes became involved in the details.
Business meetings, for instance, had to be entered into Deal’s official calendar to prevent scheduling conflicts, Riley said. And, like most other public officials, he said, Deal rarely attended meetings unaccompanied by a staff member.
“I didn’t see it as a coordinating role,” Riley said. “I still don’t look at it that way.”
However, public records reflect several instances in which Riley, acting as a congressional aide, appeared to advocate for Deal’s private interests.
Beginning in 2004, Riley sent numerous messages — all from his congressional e-mail account — concerning a landfill for which Deal and his business partner were seeking environmental permits. Riley also e-mailed Hall County officials about a road project near the site.
At one point, public records show, Riley forwarded a county engineer a legal opinion that favored the landfill. He also shared statutes from other states that allowed similar projects. In 2007, he responded to state officials after they wrote to Deal’s partner about a review of the landfill site. “As soon as the County Commission approves the review,” Riley wrote, “I will expedite the correspondence to you.”
Deal’s aides have described Riley’s work as a constituent service — the constituents being Deal and his partner.
Riley made similar efforts in 2008 and 2009 when the state Department of Revenue proposed ending a vehicle inspection program through which Deal’s company, Gainesville Salvage & Disposal, earned about $300,000 a year.
Congressional investigators reported that Riley set up three meetings for Deal with Revenue Commissioner Bart Graham. Riley sent about 20 e-mails from his House account to state officials, investigators reported, both to arrange Deal’s meetings to lobby Graham and to track the state Senate’s attempt to restore the program’s funding.
Although investigators concluded Riley’s efforts may have violated ethics rules, the case ended when Deal resigned from Congress to run for governor.
Both Deal and Riley have defended the effort.
“Nothing,” Riley said Friday, “was done inappropriately.”