Farm policy was once a bigger focus for U.S. House Oversight Chairman James Comer than was holding the government accountable. But after the former Kentucky state president of the Future Farmers of America was elected as the Bluegrass State’s agricultural commissioner, his first move in that position risked putting him on the wrong side of his own party as well as the state’s secular religion, college basketball.
Comer initiated an investigation of the scandal-plagued office he inherited from his predecessor, Republican Richie Farmer, a former star guard with a retired jersey from the 1992 University of Kentucky Wildcats basketball team.
“One reason I ran for agriculture commissioner was not only did I have a good ag background, but the Department of Agriculture was just engulfed in corruption,” Comer told The Daily Signal in an interview at his Capitol Hill office. “… There were a lot of reforms to the agency, and that kind of led me when I came to Congress, to ask to be on two committees, agriculture and oversight.”
Farmer was also on the 2011 ballot as a candidate for lieutenant governor. That year, Republican Comer’s victory as agriculture commissioner prevented a full Democratic sweep of statewide office, when Democrats won elections for the Kentucky governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, and others.
One of those newly elected Democrats was State Auditor Adam Edelen, whom Comer asked to audit the agriculture office. This audit led to a criminal referral, and Farmer was sentenced to 27 months in federal prison for misuse of public funds.
“Jamie Comer was an incredible partner and valuable teammate in what was widely accepted as the biggest public corruption investigation in the state in the last 20-30 years,” Edelen told The Daily Signal in a phone interview.
“There’s a joke that basketball is not a religion in Kentucky, it’s far more serious than that. Richie Farmer was a powerful and well-loved figure,” Edelen continued. “So both of us—during our first month in statewide office—we were taking a lot of political risk. He [Comer] was hearing, ‘Why in the world would you be in cahoots with a rising Democrat in the state,’ and I was hearing the same. … His cooperation made it OK for career employees in the agriculture office to cooperate with us.”
It was in the same office that, as agriculture commissioner, Comer held the federal government accountable with a successful lawsuit against the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
‘Always Been About Joe Biden’
Now, Comer is in the national spotlight as the chairman of the House Oversight and Accountability Committee, leading an investigation into an alleged $5 million bribery scheme involving President Joe Biden, as well as alleged influence peddling by members of the president’s family. The committee expects to eventually make criminal referrals to the Justice Department.
“People need to understand the amount of pressure on Chairman Comer and provide support,” Oversight Committee member Rep. Gary Palmer, R-Ala., told The Daily Signal in a phone interview. “What he is doing is tough for him and his family, and a lesser man would wilt. I don’t think he will.”
Comer, chairing a committee with 25 Republicans and 21 Democrats, is serving as a de facto special counsel of sorts, since the Biden Justice Department appears unlikely to name an independent investigator.
On June 13, Sens. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn.; Mike Braun, R-Ind.; and JD Vance, R-Ohio, sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland calling for a special counsel to investigate the Biden allegations.
“It started as an investigation of Hunter Biden and transformed into an investigation of Joe Biden as a result of methodically following the evidence,” Palmer, the chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, said. “Irrespective of whether Merrick Garland appoints a special counsel, we will do our job in Oversight. But we don’t have prosecutorial power. All we can do is turn over evidence and make a referral to the Justice Department. The Justice Department has already created the perception among the American people that it is not evenhanded.”
However, Comer opposes a special counsel and contends Congress is the best avenue for a probe.
“Look how long it took the Durham report and the criticism from both sides in the Durham report,” he said referring to special counsel John Durham, who investigated FBI misconduct when it was investigating former President Donald Trump.
“There were never any updates. No one knew what Durham was doing,” Comer added. “You know, when you have something of the utmost importance that the American people are concerned about pertaining to public corruption, special counsel or special prosecutors, not only do they take so much longer to conduct an investigation than we would, but there’s no transparency.”
In December, Comer pledged to have a transparent investigation with regular updates.
“There are no checks and balances with the special counsel, special prosecutor, and I can’t think of one instance in the history of America where a special counsel or special prosecutor at the end of the day was considered effective,” Comer said.
He added, “When someone’s in a deposition [in Congress], both sides get to ask questions. Right? And with the special counsel, it’s one person.”
In December, when Comer announced plans for the probe of Biden family financial activity, he asserted, “This is an investigation of Joe Biden.”
After months of revelations about millions of dollars coming to at least nine members of the Biden family through various shell corporations, Democrats and much of the media insisted it had nothing to do with the president.
But in May, the investigation became unmistakably about the president.
Under the pressure of a threatened contempt of Congress citation against FBI Director Christopher Wray, the FBI finally allowed members of the House Oversight and Accountability Committee to view a document (called an FD-1023) in which an FBI confidential informant says that Biden was paid $5 million by an executive with Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company, to affect U.S. policy. At the time, Biden was vice president and the Obama administration’s point man on Ukrainian matters.
For his part, the president said the bribery allegation is “a bunch of malarkey.”
Allowing members to view the unclassified document was a compromise, as Comer wanted all of Congress to have a copy.
“This investigation has always been about Joe Biden,” Comer said in the interview. “I know a lot of the media say this is the Hunter Biden investigation. This is a Joe Biden investigation. It was a Joe Biden investigation in December. It’s a Joe Biden investigation in June.”
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said he’s known Comer for a decade.
“I think Jamie Comer is doing a great job and I think, from all I can see looking in from the outside, there is some amazing information there,” Paul told The Daily Signal.
Paul added the public and media should have access to the FD-1023 form.
“The whole idea there are documents and informants saying that Joe Biden was specifically involved with receiving money from Ukraine—the great irony is that this whole impeachment process over Trump was ‘He’s trying to influence an investigation into Joe Biden in Ukraine,’” Paul said. “It turns out maybe there was something there worth investigating. Now it’s going to be investigated.”
Born in Tennessee, Comer grew up across the state line in Monroe County, Kentucky. His father was a dentist and his mother, a school teacher. His grandparents on both sides of the family were involved in Republican politics in two different states. Harlin Comer, his paternal grandfather, was the chairman of the Monroe County Republican Party.
His maternal grandfather, Kenneth Witcher, was a state representative in Tennessee and a friend of former U.S. Sen. Howard Baker, the ranking member of the Senate Watergate Committee who famously asked, “What did the president know, and when did he know it?”
“Both my grandparents were involved in politics. I had their pictures up there,” Comer said motioning to the wall in his Capitol Hill office. “And they were active in the local Republican Party politics. I used to go to political speeches and political rallies with both my grandparents.”
Comer graduated from Western Kentucky University in 1993, where he majored in agriculture. He purchased a farm shortly after that.
He married his wife, T.J., in 2003, and their older daughter is named Reagan, after the congressman’s political hero and 40th president. His son is named Harlan, and the younger daughter is Aniston.
Comer was also a director of South Central Bank in Tompkinsville, Kentucky, for 12 years, which allowed him to gain some experience in investigating bank records. That proved helpful as chairman of the Oversight Committee as he reviewed bank records and suspicious activity reports, also called SARs, on Biden family members filed with the Treasury Department. He said media outlets tried to dismiss the fact that the Bidens had a number of these reports on them by claiming lots of people had SARs reports.
“Practically nobody has a SARs. You never had a SARs—I guarantee you never have,” Comer said. “I never had a SARs. I was a director of a bank for a long time. My family owns a bank.”
In 2000, at age 27, Comer was first elected to the Kentucky House of Representatives, where he served six terms. In his first two years, the Republican managed to get five of his bills passed through a Democrat-majority House, so in 2002, the National Republican Legislators Association named Comer the freshman state lawmaker of the year, giving the young politician national recognition.
Later, as agriculture commissioner, Comer successfully lobbied the legislature to pass an industrial hemp bill in 2013 that allowed the state Department of Agriculture to license farmers to grow hemp in restricted areas. This included pilot projects, including working with state universities. The bill passed overwhelmingly through the Democratic House and Republican Senate and was signed by Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear.
Proponents of industrial hemp say it can be used to produce various products such as biofuel, auto parts, paper, upholstery, and fibers for clothes and textile items. Hemp is the same species of cannabis plant as marijuana, but the hemp strain has a much lower concentration of tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive component found in the drug. In Congress, Comer sought to declassify hemp from a Schedule 1 narcotic.
Comer has a generally strong conservative record and—along with Edelen, got the 2012 “Liberty Award” from the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, a free-market think tank in Kentucky, because of the investigation into the Richie Farmer matter.
However, the institute did call Comer out in the past as a member of the state House, along with other legislators of both parties, for a late-night vote enacting what the group viewed as an overly generous pension package for lawmakers.
“The high point of his work in Frankfort [the state capital] came while he was agriculture commissioner,” Jim Waters, president of the Bluegrass Institute, told The Daily Signal in a phone interview. “What he did will still benefit the state for decades.”
But it was hemp that led to a showdown with the federal government. The DEA seized 250 pounds of hemp seeds that were meant to be used for industrial hemp pilot programs. After Comer sued the federal government, the DEA backed down and issued a permit for the state Agriculture Department.
“The agriculture commissioner job and the DEA lawsuit gave him a taste of oversight and could help him in his current role pursuing accountability,” Waters added.
Comer lost a Republican gubernatorial primary by 83 votes in 2015 to eventual general election winner Matt Bevin.
“Matt Bevin had a more conservative style, and the way he talked was very conservative, but Jamie only lost by 80-something votes because he had a good conservative voting record in the legislature,” Waters said.
He bounced back in 2016 to win Kentucky’s First Congressional District race, garnering 72% of the vote.
The victory was interesting for two reasons. One, for the second time, Comer succeeded a scandal-addled politician. Two, the victory also allowed him to serve in both the 114th and 115th Congresses after just one election.
Rep. Ed Whitfield resigned from the seat amid an ethics probe. So, Comer’s November 2016 victory was both a special election to finish Whitfield’s term and to serve in the next Congress.
He was generally a noncontroversial congressman with a bipartisan reputation better known for solid constituent service, Waters said.
Mike Howell, director of The Heritage Foundation’s Oversight Project, was a staffer for the House Oversight Committee when Comer was a freshman. (The Heritage Foundation is the parent organization of The Daily Signal.)
“He was studious, thoughtful, and precise. You can see how he’s dedicated himself to the practice of congressional oversight over the years,” Howell told The Daily Signal. “He’s met the moment of the historical challenge as a chairman. We’re lucky he’s in the position he’s in now.”
Now, Comers is facing heavy criticism.
“He is taking flak, which must mean he is over the target,” Waters of the Bluegrass Institute said.
Neither flamboyant nor bombastic, Comer was not a national name until recently, even jokingly referring to himself as “an unknown backbencher,” and “underdog” to be the top GOP member of the Oversight panel.
“I believe I brought credibility and a good disposition and stability to the chairmanship,” Comer said.
However, liberal dark money organizations—chiefly Facts First USA, founded by liberal activist David Brock, and the Congressional Integrity Project, which are fighting House Republican oversight efforts—attacked the investigation.
Facts First USA compared Comer to Rep. George Santos, R-N.Y., who is under investigation connected to numerous lies he told about his background when he ran for office. The organization even called for a criminal investigation of Comer in a May 16 letter to U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Matthew Graves because of his comments about Biden.
The letter claims, “There is a strong possibility that the ‘informant’ that Representative Comer has been speaking about does not exist.” However, the FBI has acknowledged the existence of the informant.
Congressional Integrity Project executive director Kyle Herrig claimed Comer “doesn’t care about the truth of his allegations.”
Both organizations routinely issue press releases casting Comer as a “MAGA” politician or working with “MAGA allies,” referencing Trump’s 2016 campaign theme of “Make America Great Again.”
However, Comer voted to certify Biden’s presidential election victory in January 2021 when 147 House Republicans voted against certifying in certain closely contested states.
“That was not a popular vote in my district,” Comer said. “I believe in evidence and I never saw the evidence of what people like [Rudy] Giuliani, Sidney Powell, and Lin Wood were saying. They were saying Dominion [Voting Systems] was hacked and all that. I don’t know if it was or wasn’t, but I know this: They never had an ounce of evidence, and I believe in evidence.”
Trump carried Comer’s district by 40 points over Biden.
“I had the biggest Trump district of anyone who voted to certify the election,” Comer said. “Do you know who had the second biggest Trump district? Liz Cheney.”
Comer compared the poor evidence from Trump’s lawyers with the evidence-free allegations of former House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., during the Russian collusion investigation into Trump.
“I defended Trump on Russian collusion because I never saw any evidence and I never believed Adam Schiff was telling the truth on the Steele dossier and all of that. And we were right,” Comer said. “We have already produced more evidence than I think any of the last three main congressional investigative committees have produced combined, and we’re just getting started.”
The country is better for having Comer as the chief of the House Oversight Committee, Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., said.
“Chairman Comer walked into a nearly impossible task: Investigate alleged corruption by the president of the United States and his family,” Mace told The Daily Signal in a statement.
“Under his guidance, the committee has demonstrated a steadfast commitment to holding the executive branch accountable and ensuring transparency in government. Chairman Comer’s tireless efforts to uncover the truth and pursue justice have been instrumental in upholding the principles of good governance,” Mace continued. “His dedication to the American people, no matter the personal cost, and his commitment to upholding the integrity of our democratic institutions, is truly commendable.”
Oversight of the executive branch has been restored under Comer, said Rep. Russell Fry, R-S.C.
“Chairman Comer doesn’t let anything get in his way to provide transparency and ensure the government is working for the American people,” Fry told The Daily Signal in a statement. “It’s an honor to serve with him on the House Oversight Committee.”
But Edelen, the former Democratic Kentucky state auditor, said it’s not Comer who could undermine House Republican investigations.
“The Jamie Comer I know had a reputation for bipartisanship and was about relationships at his core. In D.C., I don’t know if that is even possible,” Edelen said. “The Republican leadership did not do him any favors stacking the committee with people like Paul Gosar and Marjorie Taylor Greene. Is it even possible to run a credible investigation with such incredible figures on your committee?”
Gosar and Greene, known for sometimes over-the-top rhetoric, were removed from their committee assignments when Democrats had a majority.
Democrats also have bombastic characters on the same committee, such as “Squad” members Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Cori Bush of Missouri.
Comer doesn’t have a timeline for the issuance of the committee’s final report and criminal referrals to the Justice Department. But, he said he would take a page out of the Jan. 6 select committee by taking more depositions as opposed to focusing on hearings.
“Once we feel like we’ve deposed every single person that had any knowledge of what was going on, and once we feel like we’ve gotten every bank account that we can possibly get that will show money, wires, and money-laundering schemes to buy these, then I will issue a report that I’m pretty confident there’ll be criminal referrals in that report,” Comer said.
Rep. Anna Paulina Luna, R-Fla., who has called for Biden’s impeachment, called this “one of the most explosive bribery investigations in U.S. history,” that would not have come to light without Comer’s “dogged resolve.”
“Really, we wouldn’t have this information without the chairman’s courage in search of the truth,” Luna told The Daily Signal in a statement. “This kind of determined integrity has naturally brought attacks against him, but I’m not concerned. I feel confident in his ability to continue to withstand any attempt to derail this investigation into Joe Biden and his crimes against the American people—irrespective of empty attacks from Democrats on the committee or any outside leftist groups.”
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