U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva says he’ll investigate a longtime federal official’s allegations that he was pressured politically to reverse a key decision on a 28,000-home Benson subdivision to smooth the way for its permitting.
Steve Spangle said he was pressured in 2017, when he was a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official, to reverse his earlier biological decision that broad study was needed of the proposed Villages at Vigneto development’s impacts on endangered species and the San Pedro River. Spangle, now retired, made the claims in an Arizona Daily Star interview published April 28.
As chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, Grijalva, a Tucson Democrat, has the power to call witnesses in an investigation.
Meanwhile, an attorney for Vigneto’s developer, El Dorado Holdings Inc., confirmed Friday that the company’s CEO called then-Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt in 2017 to raise concerns after Spangle made his initial decision. Bernhardt, a former lobbyist for oil and mining interests, including the Rosemont Mine near Tucson, now heads Interior, by appointment of President Trump this year.
The attorney, Lanny Davis, said El Dorado CEO Mike Ingram’s action was not political and was “solely based on the merits and facts of the law, which turned out to be on the side of the company, on the ... (final) decision made by Mr. Spangle and the Army Corps.” (After Spangle’s reversal, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers granted Vigneto the Clean Water Act permit it needed to begin construction.)
Spangle said Friday the fact that Ingram called Bernhardt, which was first reported by The Arizona Republic on May 4 in a follow-up to the Star’s article, “solidifies my original belief” this was an act of political pressure.
“It confirms what I suspected all along, that somebody was asked to intervene. The whole thing smacked of non-biological decision-making,” said Spangle, who was the top Fish and Wildlife official in Arizona from 2003-2018.
Spangle told the Star he didn’t know who ultimately applied the pressure. He said he was told by an attorney in the Interior Department’s Solicitors Office that she received a phone call from a higher-up to tell him to change his stance if he knew what was good for him. Spangle declined to name the attorney.
He said the political pressure was the first he ever experienced in 34 years with the federal government, including 29 years with the wildlife service under five presidents going back to President George H.W. Bush.
Grijalva said environmentalists had suspected Spangle’s reversal was prompted by political pressure.
“The fact that he says it just validates that, particularly what I think is the context of the Trump administration and the Interior Department — this is their agenda, rolling back the protections in place,” Grijalva said.
“This is par for the course — I’m glad we have him, it’s confirmation of what the reality is,” Grijalva said of Spangle’s recent comments to the Star that he got “rolled” by a Trump administration official over Vigneto.
Interior and the Army Corps declined through their spokesmen to comment on Grijalva’s intention to investigate the case.
The Interior Department didn’t respond to a question from the Star about whether Bernhardt played a role leading to Spangle’s reversal. The department has already denied that its Solicitor’s Office sought to pressure Spangle.
Spangle’s earlier decision would have required the Army Corps to conduct a broad analysis of the environmental impacts of the entire 12,300-acre Vigneto development.
In addition to Ingram’s call to Bernhardt, El Dorado’s president, Jim Kenny, wrote the Army Corps a letter in 2017 that led directly to a letter from the Corps to Spangle asking him to reverse his earlier decision. That letter is in the public record.
Davis, the Washington, D.C.-based attorney for El Dorado, said the company will fully cooperate with an investigation and provide Grijalva and his committee staff all the information they request.
He said he believes an investigation will validate the company’s view that the Army Corps and Spangle correctly limited the scope of the project’s environmental review.
Asked if he thought Ingram’s call to Bernhardt influenced how the Interior Department handled the case, Davis said, “I hope so, based on the facts and the law. That’s the only thing that matters to a judge. It’s going to be decided by a judge.”
Environmentalists have sued to overturn the permit issued by the Army Corps, and the permit is currently suspended.
Davis, who is handling both legal and public-relations work for El Dorado, is a veteran D.C. attorney and public-relations executive. His recent clients include former presidential attorney and alleged Trump “fixer” Michael Cohen.
Spangle’s “pure innuendo to a journalist that he ‘felt’ political pressure from anonymous sources in Washington causing him to change his mind is just that,” El Dorado Holdings said in a statement.
“He supplies no names, facts, or legal issues as evidence that his final decision was the wrong decision, regardless of his ‘feelings.’”
Grijalva said he hopes to “revisit some of those decisions that have been made” by the Corps, including Vigneto and the agency’s March 2019 approval of a Clean Water Act permit for the planned Rosemont Mine in the Santa Rita Mountains southeast of Tucson.
While the Vigneto and Rosemont decisions have some common threads — both centered heavily on the Corps’ moves to limit how broadly it analyzed their environmental impacts — they will be investigated separately, Grijalva said.
By interviewing the parties and agencies involved in the Vigneto case, Grijalva said he hopes for a successful lawsuit against the project or to force a “start over on the regulations that they (federal agencies) changed, to get the decision redone properly.”
Spangle said that since the Star’s article was published, he has already been interviewed by the Natural Resources Committee staff about the case.
“I’ll do whatever is asked” regarding a congressional investigation, he said.