A U.S. Interior Department attorney met twice with then-Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt the same day she allegedly told a Fish and Wildlife Service official to back off his tough stance on a huge Benson development.
The two meetings, shown on Bernhardt’s calendar, have intensified concerns of Trump administration critics that Bernhardt personally ordered the attorney to exert political pressure to reverse an environmental decision.
Moreover, the meetings came 13 days after the developer of the Benson project, Mike Ingram, a prominent political donor to President Trump, held a private meeting with Bernhardt to talk about the 28,000-home Villages at Vigneto.
Bernhardt, a Trump appointee, and associate interior solicitor Peg Romanik held one meeting before and one right around the time the Fish and Wildlife supervisor, Steve Spangle, has said Romanik called him on Aug. 31, 2017.
Spangle has said Romanik told him “a high-level political appointee” in Interior wanted him to reverse his requirement for a major environmental analysis of the Villages at Vigneto.
Bernhardt and Romanik met from 8:30 to 9 a.m. and from 1:30 p.m. to 2 p.m. Washington, D.C., time that day, Bernhardt’s calendar shows. The second Bernhardt-Romanik meeting was also attended by Richard Goeken, Interior’s deputy solicitor for parks and wildlife, who oversees legal issues involving the Fish and Wildlife Service, the calendar shows.
Spangle got his call from Romanik in midmorning that day, he told the Star. He has said it was the first time he ever received political pressure from higher-ups in his long career at Fish and Wildlife under five presidential administrations.
An Interior spokeswoman hasn’t returned emails this week from the Star seeking comment on the meetings.
Bernhardt, a former lobbyist for energy and mining companies, including the company proposing the Rosemont Mine near Tucson, has since been named by President Trump as Interior secretary.
Spangle said that learning this week about the two Romanik-Bernhardt meetings adds to his previous suspicion that Bernhardt directed the attorney to call him.
“It’s another piece of circumstantial evidence,” Spangle said.
Spangle has said he gave in to the pressure and eased the way for Vigneto. “I knew that this was the (Trump) administration’s position, and since I worked for the administration, I had a job to do,” he previously told the Star. A few months after the Romanik call, he opted to take early retirement.
The Interior Department has previously denied putting any pressure on Spangle.
Romanik has not returned several calls this week seeking comment. She declined to discuss the case with the Star at the time Spangle first alleged political interference in this case to the Star in spring 2019.
The timing of the two Bernhardt-Romanik meetings is “incredibly suspicious, given what Mr. Spangle has said about the call that he got from Peg Romanik,” said Aaron Weiss, a conservationist who directs the Denver-based Center for Western Priorities. Weiss told the Star this week about the two meetings on Bernhardt’s calendar.
Weiss said he also finds it suspicious that Bernhardt and Romanik met again on Oct. 6, 2017. It was the same day that Ingram, CEO of Vigneto developer El Dorado Holdings, gave a $10,000 donation to a fundraising arm of the Trump campaign.
The timing of that meeting and the donation may have been coincidental, Weiss acknowledged. But there’s no way to know what the two were meeting about either day, he noted, because Bernhardt’s official daily calendar doesn’t disclose the subject of his meetings with various people and groups.
That donation was later refunded, Lanny Davis, an attorney for El Dorado Holdings, told the Associated Press Wednesday. Davis said Ingram got a refund so he could donate instead to a political action committee that allows contributors to give more money than campaigns do.
Ingram had donated $50,900 to President Trump’s political committees since 2015, CNN reported.
CNN reported this week, and the Star confirmed, that Bernhardt held what CNN termed a secret meeting with Ingram in Billings, Montana on Aug. 18, 2017, 13 days before Romanik’s call to Spangle. That meeting, unlike four others the developer and assistant secretary have had, wasn’t on Bernhardt’s official calendar.
CNN’s story reported on Bernhardt’s first Aug. 31, 2017, meeting with Romanik, but not the second.
Last week, U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, a Tucson Democrat, wrote to Bernhardt to question him about these issues.
Grijalva noted that Ingram’s $10,000 donation came only three weeks before Spangle wrote to the Army Corps of Engineers on Oct. 26, 2017, that he no longer thought Vigneto needed a full-scale environmental analysis.
That letter reversed Spangle’s position a year earlier, in an October 2016 letter to the Corps, that groundwater pumping for Vigneto was likely to reduce the San Pedro River’s flow, in stretches designated as federal critical habitat for the endangered Southwestern willow flycatcher and proposed as critical habitat for two threatened species.
Grijalva, chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, launched an investigation of the Vigneto case following the Star’s April article in which Spangle first said he was “rolled” by superiors over Vigneto.
He wrote that recent reports about Spangle’s comments have raised questions about whether “a key permit decision at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was inappropriately reversed.”
“It’s not clear to me why top Interior officials would weigh in on a local land development unless someone was being done a huge favor,” Grijalva told the Associated Press Wednesday.
Grijalva asked that the Interior Department provide him “all documents and communications to, from or within” its Solicitor’s Office regarding Vigneto from Oct. 1, 2016 to Oct. 31, 2017. He gave a deadline of July 29.
Interior Press Secretary Molly Block said “the department will respond through the proper channels.”
Davis, a prominent Washington, D.C., attorney representing El Dorado, has said that Spangle’s final letter on Vigneto saying a major environmental analysis wasn’t warranted was the right decision, based on the case’s science and facts.
He noted that the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Arizona office reaffirmed the validity of Spangle’s final decision in a June 2019 letter to the Corps.
Davis has criticized as “innuendo” comments raising concerns about Bernhardt’s and Ingram’s meeting and Interior’s reversal on the case. The Aug. 18 meeting in Billings occurred simply because the two happened to be in Montana at the same time, an El Dorado spokesman said.