The deputy Interior secretary held a secret meeting with the developer of a big Benson subdivision two weeks before a federal underling says he was pressured to reverse his tough stance on the project, CNN reports.
The breakfast meeting was held in August 2017 between then-deputy secretary David Bernhardt, who is now Interior secretary, and Mike Ingram, CEO of Phoenix-based El Dorado Holdings, which proposes to build the 28,000-home Villages at Vigneto in Benson.
The meeting was the first of five between Bernhardt and Ingram during the Trump administration, CNN reported Monday.
The cable network said this was “a secret meeting, not on any public calendar.” It also reported Ingram had donated $50,900 to President Trump’s political committees since 2015.
The report came as U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, was requesting a host of documents from the Department of Interior and an Interior agency, the Bureau of Land Management, about their handling of the development.
Grijalva is investigating because of allegations first made to the Arizona Daily Star in March by whistleblower Steve Spangle.
Spangle said that in August 2017, when he was a Fish and Wildlife supervisor, Interior officials pressured him to reverse his stance that the development needed more study because its groundwater pumping could dry up the neighboring San Pedro River. Spangle said he complied and then retired.
An El Dorado spokesman confirmed the August 2017 meeting between Bernhardt and Ingram, saying it was held at a restaurant in Billings, Montana, although CNN said it was at Ingram’s hunting lodge in Billings.
Ingram was only asking that the Interior Department make its decision on Vigneto on the facts of the case, El Dorado attorney Lanny Davis said.
Davis told CNN that any implication his client exerted improper influence over Interior officials was “strictly innuendo.”
“There is not a single fact that supports the false premise that political lobbying or influence caused a change in environmental policy positions regarding the development of the Villages,” Davis said Tuesday.
He noted that the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Arizona office just this summer reaffirmed Spangle’s revised position that the project didn’t need a full-scale environmental analysis.
Environmentalists blasted Davis’ statements.
“It’s not innuendo. It’s a very specific series of events that reeks not just of improper political interference, but outright pay-for-play corruption,” said Aaron Weiss, director of the environmental group Center for Western Priorities, via Twitter on Tuesday.
Robin Silver, conservation chair for the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, said Vigneto is a case where “another one of Trump’s rich friends has access, obviously makes donations and gets a result that otherwise never would have happened.”
Grijalva, a Tucson Democrat, is seeking information relating to Spangle’s allegation that he agreed to back off his push for a sweeping environmental analysis of the Vigneto project.
Spangle said he did so after he was told in August 2017 by an attorney in the Interior’s Solicitor’s Office that a high-level Interior political appointee wanted him to back off. The attorney, Peg Romanik, has declined to comment.
Spangle has said he always suspected it was Bernhardt who applied the pressure. “He was the most high-level political appointee in Interior and there aren’t many political appointees there,” Spangle said.
Grijalva is also trying to get information from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management on why it hasn’t spoken out on Vigneto’s possible effects on the neighboring San Pedro Riparian Conservation Area. BLM owns the conservation area, which includes the St. David Cienega near Benson.
Grijalva sent letters to Bernhardt and acting BLM Director Brian Steed on July 3.
Trump named Bernhardt to replace Ryan Zinke as Interior secretary in April 2019. CNN also reported that Ingram had one meeting with Zinke and two meetings and three email exchanges with former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.
An El Dorado spokesman told the Star on Tuesday that company officials don’t know where CNN came up with these 11 “interactions” between Ingram and Trump administration officials. But they likely include interactions having nothing to do with the Villages of Vigneto, such as Ingram’s work on the International Wildlife Conservation Council, the spokesman said.
Ingram’s only meeting with an Interior official on this project was that Billings breakfast meeting, said the company spokesman.
Spangle’s reversal helped speed an Army Corps of Engineers decision in October 2018 to reinstate the project’s then-suspended Clean Water Act permit. The detailed environmental analysis Spangle had previously ordered would have taken many months or longer. Since then, the Corps has suspended the permit a second time and is now considering reinstating it in the face of an environmentalist lawsuit.
The Corps has said the review Spangle wanted is outside the proper scope of analysis for its decision-making on the project. That’s in part because El Dorado has said it could build a development, although a different kind, on the 12,000-acre site even if it didn’t have a federal permit for one, the Corps has said.
Specifically, Grijalva, who had already told the Star his committee is investigating this case, is seeking:
- From Interior, copies of “all documents and communications to, from and within” the agency’s Solicitor’s office regarding Vigneto, between Oct. 1, 2016 and Oct. 31, 2017.
- From BLM, copies of “all documents and communications” relating to BLM’s consideration of Vigneto’s impacts on the national conservation area.
- Copies of all documents and other communications on Vigneto that BLM sent to the Army Corps. He requested these documents by no later than July 29.
Interior Press Secretary Molly Block said in an email to the Star that, “We have received the letters and will respond through the proper channels.” Block also noted that Steed, the acting BLM director, no longer works for Interior.
A BLM spokesman emailed the Star on Tuesday that the agency “will be responsive to Rep. Grijalva’s request. We are still in the process of seeing if we have responsive documents.”