House Oversight Committee chair James Comer (R-KY) on Wednesday subpoenaed President Joe Biden’s brother, James Biden, who Comer has implicated in unsubstantiated allegations of “shady business practices” in the Biden family.
Comer has in particular been trying to make hay out of two personal loan repayments from James Biden to his brother, for $40,000 and $200,000—with all transactions occurring in 2017 and 2018, when Joe Biden was neither in office nor a candidate.
But if Comer genuinely believes these transactions clear the “shady business practices” bar, he might want to consider a parallel inquiry into his own family.
According to Kentucky property records, Comer and his own brother have engaged in land swaps related to their family farming business. In one deal—also involving $200,000, as well as a shell company—the more powerful and influential Comer channeled extra money to his brother, seemingly from nothing. Other recent land swaps were quickly followed with new applications for special tax breaks, state records show. All of this, perplexingly, related to the dealings of a family company that appears to have never existed on paper.
But unlike with the Bidens, Comer’s own history actually borders a conflict of interest between his official government role and his private family business—and it’s been going on for decades.
While Comer and House GOP allies have tried to cast the Biden transactions as evidence of unsavory and possibly impeachable offenses, multiple news organizations—including CNN, The Wall Street Journal, FactCheck.org, and the conservative-leaning Washington Examiner—have all thrown cold water on the notion that the payments are evidence of anything other than a brother helping a brother.
That hasn’t stopped Comer. But hypocrisy hasn’t stopped Comer before, either.
Earlier this year, The Daily Beast reported that Comer’s probe into the “weaponization” of government resources resounded with echoes of Comer’s own investigation-meddling scandal. The Daily Beast also reported that Comer’s first blockbuster oversight hearing this year—into abuse of the COVID loan program—also happened to invoke Comer, as well as his brother.
This time, the irony is even richer.
“Even if this was a personal loan repayment, it’s still troubling that Joe Biden’s ability to be paid back by his brother depended on the success of his family’s shady financial dealings,” Comer said in a press release last month.
But Comer’s investigative efforts have so far failed to show that Joe Biden’s loans have any connection to family business dealings—let alone to actions while holding elected office. Comer, however, exercised government influence directly over his family’s industry for nearly 20 years.
Comer has held important positions in agriculture oversight since 2003, while running a family farming business, and those roles overlapped in 2019, the year of the land swaps. He only stepped back from an agriculture oversight role recently, in 2020—one year after the family business pivoted away from farming.
Delaney Marsco, senior counsel for ethics at nonpartisan watchdog Campaign Legal Center, told The Daily Beast that Comer’s overlapping public and private roles raise concerns about whether he may be trying to “game a personal business advantage.”
“Conflicts of interest can occur when members serve on committees overseeing industries in which they are heavily invested or in which their business interests are intertwined,” Marsco said. “Voters have a right to know that lawmakers are using their considerable power in the interest of the public, not to game a personal business advantage.”
A Comer spokesperson did not return The Daily Beast’s comment request.
Comer’s official positions afforded him both insight and power in the agriculture industry, and he held them while he and his family ran a multimillion-dollar farming business.
For instance, in 2018, Comer—a member of the House Agriculture Committee—was selected to negotiate the Farm Bill. He was the first representative from Kentucky to do so in 30 years, according to an office press release at the time.
The press release characterized the position as “an important role in shaping America’s agriculture and nutrition policy,” with Comer calling the bill “the most impactful legislation signed into law this year.”
Comer had held a seat on that committee since he was first elected to Congress in 2016. Prior to that, Comer was the Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner, and before attaining that office he sat on the state legislature’s agriculture committee for eight years. The whole time, Comer, his brother, and his father were running a farming business, with Comer valuing his third of the company between $1 million and $5 million by the time he got to Congress.
But Comer’s family company also has its own curiosities. For instance, it doesn’t appear to exist on paper.
For years, the company Comer ran with his brother and father has been identified in news reports, official statements, Comer’s financial disclosures, and livestock sale bulletins as “Comer Land & Cattle.” But there is no record of an entity by that name in business filings with the commonwealth of Kentucky—or apparently with any other jurisdiction. A statewide search for business officers only associates Comer with three defunct entities—an insurance outfit, “Four Dips, Inc,” and “CFB Foods, Inc”—and the still-active Tompkinsville-Monroe County Chamber of Commerce, where he was a founding member but has since been removed.
Comer has also claimed to run his own personal agriculture company, “James Comer Jr. Farms”—described in a 2012 Kentucky agriculture commission press release as “a 950-acre beef cattle, timber and hay farming operation in his native Monroe County”—but The Daily Beast couldn’t find any official records of an entity by that name, either. His brother and father also don’t appear in filings.
After Comer’s father died in early 2019, Comer appears to have changed his business focus. He went from farming the land to leasing it, a move he touted in a podcast interview last month as the way he “accumulated wealth.” The next year, Comer left the House Agriculture Committee, with his official website no longer listing the committee by August. (He currently serves on the Education and Labor Committee, in addition to leading Oversight.)
The land swaps between Comer and his brother, Chad Comer, went down months after they lost their father, in January 2019. Comer’s father—also named James Comer—died without leaving a will, according to deed records in Monroe County, Kentucky. That left his two sons—who were also his business partners—as the legal heirs to his land, and, without the dictates of a will, they set about divvying up the inheritance.
But some of those transactions aren’t so transparent.
For instance, on July 8, Chad Comer bought out his brother’s half of a piece of inherited Kentucky property, paying $100,000, according to deed records in Monroe County. Five months later, James and his wife Tamara “TJ” Comer, bought the property out in full, this time paying Chad Comer $218,000. The buyout netted Chad Comer an unexplained $18,000 above the total value in July.
That purchase, however, had a third party in addition to James and TJ—their own shell company, “Farm Team Properties, LLC.” Comer’s financial disclosure that year describes Farm Team Properties, LLC, as a “land management and real estate speculation company” with a range of value between $200,000 and $500,000. In two years, its value had increased to the $500,000 to $1 million range.
In another swap—this one in April, 2019—James Comer gifted his brother, via a $1 transaction, his share of two inherited tracts in Clay County, Tennessee, with a share value being $175,000, according to the deed of sale. The value of James Comer’s share matches the value of the full property in 1994, when the brothers and their father first acquired it for $175,000, according to the deed.
It’s not immediately clear why James Comer listed that same specific dollar amount for his share—either to match what was already on the books, or to reflect a neatly coincidental increase in value. But in September, Chad Comer applied for a special Tennessee agricultural tax break on that property, according to Clay County records. The tax break, called a “Greenbelt Assessment,” assesses property taxes at its “use value” instead of fair market value as long as the land generates a certain amount of annual agricultural income. (James Comer made that move this year after buying a $10,000 parcel from his brother, tax records show.)
The same day that James Comer gave his brother that land, Chad Comer reciprocated with an apparently more valuable piece of property in Macon County, Tennessee—except James Comer didn’t disclose that value in the sale.
Instead, Comer appears to have whited that number out, writing “exempt” in its place on the deed, then signing below. However, the land’s value can still be ascertained from the deed history in Macon County, where records show that their father had originally purchased the tract for $203,000 in 2015. That means that, while Comer appears to have netted a value of roughly $30,000 in the swap, he did not put that in the public record.
While the amount of money involved in these transactions is not even in the millions, they’re comparable to the Biden loans. And the largest of those two loans, $200,000, is less than the 2015 value of Comer’s “exempt” purchase.
“Did he know that the same day James Biden wrote him a check for $200,000, James Biden had just received a loan for the exact same amount from business dealings with a company that was in financial distress and failing?” Comer wondered in a press release last month.
It’s unclear how Comer first came into the family business. Land records from the 1990s list his name alongside his brother and father as property buyers. And the Comer brothers have bought property together as far back as 1993, when they paid a combined $16,500 for a Macon County parcel.
What is clearer, however, is that the family business has changed.
Comer Land & Cattle appears in a Lancaster Farming article from 1988, when a bull that the company co-owned, named “CLC High Card 7111,” won second place at the Indiana State Fair. News reports throughout Comer’s political career identified him as running the company with his father and brother, a farming and livestock operation he recalled last month in a podcast interview with former Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), a former chairman of the Oversight Committee himself.
“I was actually a senior in college when I bought my first farm, in 1993. I paid $350 an acre for that,” Comer said, a possible reference to the $16,500 purchase. He then breezed through the shift from active farming to real estate speculation, saying he sold timber off the farm, raised cattle and crops there, and eventually took a “tobacco buyout” from the government.
What Comer didn’t mention is that he had a government role related to that tobacco buyout. From 2005 to 2011, Comer served on the state legislature’s Tobacco Settlement Agreement Fund Oversight Committee. Comer was apparently quite hands-on in this role, according to press interviews from the time, placing an emphasis on weeding out federal buyout farming recipients who didn’t demonstrate profitability. Comer later brought that experience to bear when he wore down Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), convincing him to get behind hemp farming.
However, Comer’s business focus has since shifted to real estate.
“Now I lease it. I lease the hunting,” he told Chaffetz, noting that “the key to me accumulating what I have was through the real estate.”
Comer’s financial disclosures reflect that move.
In 2018, the Oversight Chairman reported a 33 percent stake in “Comer Land & Cattle,” a business he’d run for years with his father and his brother, Chad. His disclosures valued that stake between $1 million and $5 million, describing the company as “a family farming operation engaged in beef cattle, corn, soybeans, mixed hay, & timber farming.” But in 2019, Comer Land & Cattle disappeared from his disclosures, with multiple new joint operations appearing to take its place, and while those entities all had “farm” in their name—many also including “Comer”—their income was from rent.
“That first farm was a very good investment. It’s cash-flowed really well,” Comer told Chaffetz, pegging the farm’s appreciated value at $5,000 an acre. He said he “did what every business guy does: I started borrowing money and buying land and leveraging that. And I really accumulated a lot of land.”
Comer claimed that today he’s “one of the bigger land-owners in my home area,” but he said he acquired his assets the “old-fashioned way” and “didn’t really inherit that much.”
While that may be true in the sense that Comer started out small, he also started out with the support of his father and his brother. He then rose to a position of considerable power and influence over his own industry, and—contrary to his own statement—he does appear to have inherited a great deal.
Comer also claimed he still carries “a lot of liability,” with “a lot of farm debt and stuff.” He currently has two liabilities: a farm mortgage from 1996 between $500,000 and $1 million, and a line of credit of the same value from last year. He took out the line of credit from South Central Bank, where Comer was on the board of directors for 12 years.
“You read those real estate books, ‘How To Get Rich In Real Estate.’ I kind of—I’m not rich, but I accumulated wealth kind of that way,” he said.