Congress

Witnesses appeared before grand jury this month in Rep. Robert Pittenger matter

Witnesses appeared before grand jury this month in Pittenger matter, sources say U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger (NC-9th Dist) smiles after addressing supporters at his election returns party at Taco Mac in Charlotte after a close Republican primary win on Tuesday, June 7, 2016.
Witnesses appeared before grand jury this month in Pittenger matter, sources say U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger (NC-9th Dist) smiles after addressing supporters at his election returns party at Taco Mac in Charlotte after a close Republican primary win on Tuesday, June 7, 2016. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Multiple witnesses appeared before a federal grand jury in Charlotte this month to answer questions related to Rep. Robert Pittenger’s former real estate business, two sources have told the Observer.

The witnesses faced questions from prosecutors on Jan. 11 at the federal courthouse in Charlotte, the sources said. Officials from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Charlotte and the Justice Department in Washington were on hand for the session.

The testimony is the latest sign that a nearly two-year-old investigation is still ongoing, but doesn’t necessarily mean any charges will result. The Observer has previously reported that authorities are examining whether Pittenger, a Charlotte Republican elected to a third term in November, improperly transferred money to his 2012 campaign from his real estate company.

Pittenger confirmed in August 2015 that federal investigators began looking at Pittenger Land Investments in the spring of that year, but said he was confident that he and the company he once owned had done nothing wrong.

Charlotte attorney Ken Bell, who has been representing Pittenger in the federal investigation, declined to comment this week. He has previously said he has seen nothing that suggests any criminal conduct by the congressman or his former company.

A Justice Department spokesman said the agency generally neither confirms nor denies whether a matter is under investigation. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Charlotte also wouldn’t comment.

As part of their investigation, FBI and IRS agents have interviewed investors, congressional staffers and other people familiar with Pittenger’s role at the company, sources have told the Observer. The Observer reported in October that representatives of the U.S. Justice Department in Washington and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Charlotte had also participated in these interviews.

Speaking generally, Richard Myers, a former federal prosecutor who is now a professor at the UNC School of Law, said prosecutors can use grand juries to issue subpoenas for documents and to question witnesses under oath. The proceedings are conducted in secret.

Grand juries can also issue indictments, but an investigation doesn’t have to produce charges, Myers said. “It might lead to something,” he said generally of a grand jury investigation. “It might not.”

Whether prosecutors seek to bring charges in this case could also be complicated by the change in administration in Washington. President Donald Trump has nominated Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, the Cabinet post that oversees the Justice Department.

Pittenger founded his real estate company in 1985, but after winning election to Congress in 2012 he transferred it to his wife, Suzanne, to meet House ethics rules. Last year, the Pittenger family ended its ties to the company when it handed management over to South Street Partners, a Charlotte-based real estate investment firm, as part of a settlement with investors.

In documents related to the settlement, attorneys for investors raised concerns about undocumented expenses, undisclosed loans and markups applied to land purchases. Suzanne Pittenger has said she believed PLI has “always acted in the best interest” of the company’s investors.

In addition to the federal investigation, Pittenger also faces a House Ethics Committee investigation that he himself requested in November 2015 to confirm that he had “always acted properly and in full respect for the law and House Ethics rules.” In a report this month, the ethics committee said it continues to defer its investigation of Pittenger at the request of the Justice Department.

Rick Rothacker: 704-358-5170, @rickrothacker

  Comments