The Trump administration may leave Washington, but the stench of corruption lingers.
Case in point: An allegation that former Interior Secretary David Bernhardt pressured agency staff to approve a controversial housing development in Arizona in exchange for political donations to President Trump at that time of the builder and his associates.
The allegation was made on Wednesday by House Democrats demanding a criminal investigation by the Justice Department into whether the Interior Department’s approval and contributions to Trump were ” a potential criminal or not? quid pro quo. ”
– Former Interior Department official Steve Spangle
The letter of recommendation was signed by Representative Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, and Representative Katie Porter (D-Irvine), chair of the oversight and investigative subcommittee of the House of Representatives. it.
In an email, Bernhardt called the letter “a pathetic attempt … to fabricate news.”
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The commission’s request involved complex maneuvers for environmental approvals for the Villages at Vigneto, a planned community of 28,000 housing units, plus a golf course, resort and development proposed commercial development for a 12,300-acre site outside of Tucson.
The project has been in the works for nearly 20 years but has been repeatedly opposed by environmental groups and the Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service, which has long argued that it requires detailed biological analysis. details of the Army Corps of Engineers to determine its impact. on some endangered species.
The agency maintained that position until late 2017, when it unexpectedly reversed itself. (Its reversal was opposed by the Biden administration.)
Around the time of the initial reversal, the project’s developer, Michael Ingram, and several of his business associates issued what the committee labeled unusual donations totaling 241,600. dollars for the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee – most on the same day: October 6, 2017.
It was also the day that the Army Corps of Engineers changed its stance and moved to approve the development and Bernhardt, then Deputy Interior Minister, met with a top lawyer from the Department of the Interior.
Lanny J. Davis, a spokeswoman for Ingram, called the introductions from Grijalva and Porter “false, misleading, unfair and reminds me of McCarthyism’s use of alliteration as a substitute for reality. .” He told me there was “no wrongdoing by Mr Ingram” and that “the final decision was made based on the law and facts”.
Davis also released a 2019 letter exchange between the Corps and the Fish and Wildlife Service, in which both agencies certify that they have independently reviewed the decision-making process for Vigneto and assessed its price is right. Davis said the recommending committee should have cited the exchange.
Among the political donors named by Grijalva and Porter were Arte Moreno, owner of the Angels Major League baseball team, and his wife, Carole. The committee said Arte Moreno, like most of the other donors named, had a “relationship” with Ingram – in his case through their joint membership on TGen’s board of directors. Foundation, which raises money for biotechnology research in Arizona.
The committee letter does not specifically accuse Morenos or other sponsors of misconduct.
However, the committee asked the Justice Department to “investigate and consider whether criminal charges should be brought against any party” for violating federal anti-bribery laws.
Morenos’ contributions appear to correspond to what the committee considers a dubious pattern in which many donations were made on October 6, 2017, the same day as important developments that benefit for Ingram’s development plans.
According to Open Secrets, a database of campaign donation records, Arte and Carole Moreno each donated $5,400 to the Trump campaign on October 6. These were the only donations. for Trump by Morenos on the record, although they have expressed support for Trump in the past.
Marie Garvey, a spokeswoman for Moreno, told me: “This is completely absurd. Referring to the Vigneto project, she said, “Mr. Moreno had nothing to do with this development. He is a longtime Republican donor and supporter and has served on the board of TGen for several years alongside a number of prominent businessmen. ”
Garvey said that the donations in question were actually made by check on October 3, in connection with a fundraising event in Phoenix for the Trump campaign that featured the then Vice President. is Mike Pence.
Before diving deeper into Vigneto’s intrigue, let’s give a brief introduction to Bernhardt and his role at the Interior.
When Trump appointed Bernhardt as Deputy Secretary of the Interior – the number 2 position at the agency – in April 2017, his potential conflicts of interest took center stage. As we reported, he will be featured prominently in an agency that deals with clients in the water and energy industries that have paid millions of dollars in lobbying and legal fees to his law firm. him, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck.
Bernhardt pledged to withdraw from the problems related to his former customers for a year. Almost immediately after the year expired, he appeared with an article in the Washington Post attacking the federal Endangered Species Act – which he sued the Home Office on behalf of Westlands County. Giant Water in California.
The application of the Endangered Species Act to future water projects is of great interest to Westlands and other agribusinesses, not to mention the other industries Bernhardt represents with as a private attorney.
In any case, even during the denial, Bernhardt is said to have engaged in discussions aimed at reopening environmental analysis of watercourses, with the goal of enhancing them. That would obviously benefit Westlands, his former client. Home Office ethics officials have twisted themselves into rhetorical knots to see Bernhardt’s actions as a clean bill of health.
After Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke resigned following a moral cloud in 2019, Trump nominated Bernhardt as Zinke’s successor. Critics see the appointment as a blatant mockery of good government principles. The Liberal Center for American Progress has labeled Bernhardt “Trump’s most controversial Cabinet candidate”.
“Among the 27 former clients and employers with potential conflicts of interest that Bernhardt disclosed about his ethics forms,” the Center for American Progress notes, “the data revealed the lobbying shows that 20 people have actively lobbied the Interior Ministry since the beginning of 2017. This number makes up for “the known direct conflicts of interest of the other Cabinet candidates nominated”.
Zinke and Bernhardt chaired what the Union of Concerned Scientists called a “major disaster” for science at the Interior Department in 2018. The Union of Concerned Scientists reported in detail how in In a span of two years they transformed the Interior from a steward of public lands and natural resources into a front for the mining and oil and gas industries.
The Union of Concerned Scientists discovered Bernhardt’s fingerprints in some of the more disturbing attacks on science at the Interior. These include a December 2017 order revoking and revoking a series of Obama-era directives and a report on how the department should integrate climate science into its work. This order effectively abolished the Interior’s climate change policy.
That brings us back to the Vigneto case.
This development has been at the heart of longstanding conflicts between the Corps, the force tending to adopt the project, and Fish and Wildlife, arguing that its potential impacts are severe enough to warrant ensure high-level consultations between the two agencies as required. by law.
The Fish and Wildlife Field Supervisor overseeing the project, Steve Spangle, was consistently supported by his colleagues there and the Department of Home Affairs superiors. The Environmental Protection Agency also voiced opposition to the project.
That changed after Trump took office. First, the Corps signaled its intention to approve the project without the consent of the Interior. Thereafter, a series of meetings and calls involving Bernhardt, Ingram and others occurred, some of which did not appear on Bernhardt’s official schedule.
On August 31, 2017, Spangle said, he received a call from Interior attorney Peg Romanik in which he said he was instructed to change his position with respect to Vigneto at the request of Vigneto. a “senior politician”. Romanik and Bernhardt met that morning, although the subject of the meeting was not disclosed. Spangle said he has worked under pressure to offer a changing perspective on Vigneto in a way that doesn’t make the political influence obvious.
The Corps finally greenlit the project in October 2018 but suspended approval the following February after environmental groups filed a lawsuit protesting their actions.
Spangle retired from the Interior in March 2018 and began telling his story publicly. He told his local newspaper, the Arizona Daily Star, and then repeated to CNN. He said he had been told by Romanik “that a senior politician in the Interior Ministry” had instructed her to call him to resign from his post.
He did, he said, because “my job is that I work for the bureaucracy. The government position takes precedence over mine. But he said he had never before received political pressure over a decision in his 34 years of government service.
For almost 20 years, the Ministry of the Interior has firmly asserted that large real estate developments on ecologically weak lands require careful scientific research.
Following the arrival of the business-friendly Trump administration, the agency unexpectedly organized a meeting with a well-connected Republican businessman.
That comes while the Interior is led by a group that sees its purpose as promoting development, downplaying scientific judgments and running roughshod over age-old environmental regulations. Meanwhile, Trump’s campaign coffers have grown.
What do all these accusations and denials add up to? Something stinks in the state of Arizona. Let’s see the DOJ take these allegations seriously and launch an investigation.
https://www.latimes.com/business/story/2022-05-12/david-bernhardt-interior-house-committee-criminal-investigation Hiltzik: The stench from Trump’s Cabinet lingers