WASHINGTON — House Oversight and Accountability Committee Chairman James Comer on Monday previewed his priorities for this Congress, which he says will include a strong focus on handling classified documents, the origins of the COVID-19 virus, and what which he described as possible “influence trading” by Hunter Biden.
The Kentucky Republican addressed reporters and the public at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, answering questions from the audience and promising to lead a “substantive committee.”
The panel will begin its work this session with a hearing Wednesday that will examine the potential fraud and misuse of federal pandemic relief dollars, including small business loans and unspent funds left in federal accounts.
“Unfortunately, in the last two years, there has not been a single hearing in the Supervisory Commission on spending for the pandemic, even if [the federal government] spent record amounts. This is very worrying. I feel like we are two years behind in supervision. So we’ll have to go back two years to try and catch up” Comer said.
The Democratic-controlled Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis last Congress also held hearings on efforts to prevent pandemic relief fraud and scrutiny of pandemic poverty initiatives.
For example, problems emerged after the Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP loans, which were meant to keep struggling business owners afloat during the economic turmoil of the global pandemic.
About 92 percent of these loans were partially or fully forgiven, including funds given to wealthy companies, according to an analysis of data from NPR’s Small Business Administration.
Reflecting on recent scandals involving classified government materials found in the homes and personal offices of former and current US leaders, Comer said Republicans and Democrats alike “all agree there is a problem.”
Following the revelation this month that confidential documents were in President Joe Biden’s think tank office and home, Comer sent letters to the White House and the US Secret Service, requesting more information about who might have access to the materials.
Comer told the press on Monday that the White House and the committee have not yet discussed a time to meet on the issue.
“We need to reform the way documents are boxed as they leave the office of the president and vice president and follow them into the private sector,” he said.
The committee, as early as this week, plans to meet with the general counsel of the National Archives and Records Administration, the agency charged with managing presidential records.
Comer said he was “not 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 Senate days. Justice Department officials searched Biden’s home earlier this month, in what the president called 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 the same thing happened,” Comer said.
The FBI in August executed a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago, former President Donald Trump’s home and private club in Florida, and found about 100 confidentially marked documents over thousands of searches.
“When Mar-a-Lago was raided, I went on TV … and I said ‘Look, this is said to have been an issue with a lot of former presidents about inadvertently taking documents,'” Comer said.
Biden family probe
However, Comer has repeatedly said that his committee will target Biden, not only for confidential documents, but also to determine 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 Ukrainian energy company Burisma and came into contact with a Chinese energy tycoon who was reportedly later arrested as part of an anti-corruption investigation.
“We’re investigating the president — this isn’t a Hunter Biden investigation, he’s a person interested in the Joe Biden investigation,” Comer said.
The White House has characterized the investigation as a conspiracy theory.
Another issue Comer said he hopes will be bipartisan: the origins of the COVID-19 virus.
A select committee to look into the matter will be housed under the Oversight and Accountability Committee.
“No Republican is accusing Democrats of starting COVID-19. We wonder if the COVID-19 started in Wuhan (China) lab, so no one said “Oh, it was started by a democrat”. But for whatever reason there have never been bipartisan hearings on the origin of COVID,” Comer said. “…It should be bipartisan. Hopefully this won’t be a select committee like (on) Jan. been considered openly biased”.
A March 2021 report from the World Health Organization found that an animal host was “probable or very likely” to carry the virus and transmit it to humans, but a source has not been conclusively identified. The United States and many other countries have expressed concerns about delays and access to the data used in the report.
For all its wide-ranging scrutiny, there are two topics the Oversight Committee won’t bring up: the 2020 election results and police reform.
“At the end of the day, we have our plate full of excessive spending and public corruption,” Comer said.
In light of the brutal beating and death of Tire Nichols this month by Memphis police, Comer said any discussion of police reform remains under the Judiciary Committee.
“We don’t want to get into the areas of jurisdiction of other committees,” Comer said. “…Certainly there are bad apples in every profession, bad politicians, bad police officers, and they must be held accountable.”
The Oversight and Accountability Committee will hold its first full committee organization meeting at 11 am on Tuesday.