House Natural Resources Committee Refers Probe Involving Former Trump Officials to DOJ

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Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva, along with Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chair Katie Porter, wrote in a letter dated Wednesday to Attorney General Merrick Garland that the committee was investigating a case of what they described as a possible “quid pro quo” between Arizona developer Michael Ingram and senior Trump administration officials, including then-Department of Interior Deputy Assistant Secretary David Bernhardt .

The case relates to Ingram’s 2017 efforts to build a housing and golf course project. Initially, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service field supervisor determined it was “reasonably certain” that threatened and endangered species could be harmed by the development, but the decision was later reversed and the project was was allowed to continue.

“Since 2019, the House Committee on Natural Resources has conducted a thorough investigation into the circumstances surrounding the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s October 26, 2017 decision to reverse its longstanding position regarding the Villages at Vigneto (Vigneto ) in Benson. , Arizona,” Grijalva and Porter, both Democrats, wrote in their letter to Garland.

“Evidence strongly suggests that the decision was the result of a quid pro quo between Vigneto developer Michael Ingram and senior Trump administration officials, potentially including DOI Assistant Secretary David Bernhardt (Dep. Sec. Bernhardt).”

“This level of donor activity was not typical,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter, adding that their investigation suggested “Ingram had a relationship with most donors.”

Referral of the committee to the Department of Justice is not in itself a criminal charge and it is up to the DOJ to determine whether to pursue the investigation.

The series of events was the subject of a CNN report involving a whistleblower who said he was pressured to reverse the decision to allow construction of the housing and golf project without a thorough biological assessment. .
“I felt compelled to reverse my decision… put simply, I was ripped off,” Steve Spangle, then a 30-year veteran of the Fish and Wildlife Service, told CNN in a 2019 interview. made a decision, which I had the authority to do in Arizona, and it was overruled by the highest levels of administration.” CNN was first to report a series of meetings between Ingram and Trump administration officials, including a secret breakfast between Ingram and Bernhardt that was not on its official schedule.

“The dismissal sent by Chairman Grijalva and Subcommittee Chair Porter is false, misleading, unfair, and strikes me as reminiscent of McCarthyism’s use of innuendo as a substitute for fact,” said Lanny Davis, a prominent Democratic attorney. representing El Dorodo, Ingram’s company. CNN in a statement Wednesday morning. “El Dorado has participated in several meetings with this committee, acted with full transparency and cooperated fully without subpoena. Despite this, we were denied the basic and fundamental opportunity to refute the allegations of this referral and we have even refused the opportunity to speak to the president.”

Bernhardt did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment.

At the time of the whistleblower’s story in 2019, Interior declined to answer any of CNN’s specific questions for the story, and instead provided a one-sentence statement: “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has re-examined the problem in question and used the best available science required under the Endangered Species Act came to the exact same conclusion.”

The lawmaker’s letter says FWS reversed its 2017 proposal based on an internal review of the “process by which this decision was made.” And the letter said the corps suspended the permit again on July 1, 2021.

But environmental concerns surrounding the area date back more than a decade due to its proximity to the San Pedro River and habitats of endangered and threatened species. The remote desert landscape was originally slated for development in the early 2000s. The Environmental Protection Agency has long opposed construction on the site, writing in 2005 that it “represents a substantial and unacceptable impact on the aquatic resources of national importance,” and the EPA’s position has not changed since. Opponents of the project also claim that the aquifer that feeds the river could be impacted.

The lawmakers wrote in the letter that in their investigation, they found that “FWS staff and DOI legal staff have agreed for years that formal consultation on Vigneto’s permit under the Clean Water Act was required under the Endangered Species Act”.

“Once President Trump was elected, Vigneto developer Michael Ingram was given access to senior administration officials, including personal email addresses and cell phone numbers,” they wrote. “In August 2017, Mr. Ingram had breakfast in Montana with then-Under Secretary Bernhardt. The breakfast was not disclosed in public calendars or in documents produced to the Committee. “

After the meeting and “apparently at the direction of the Sec. Bernhardt department”, an attorney from the Department of the Interior “issued a directive to reverse FWS’ position, a process by which the primary decision maker and whistleblower claimed that it “had been rolled up” and deemed highly unusual.”

The lawmakers cited three developments that took place on October 6, 2017, when they wrote: “Together, these facts raise serious concerns about a potentially criminal crime. misunderstanding.”

“First, the Corps officially noticed a reassessment of the Clean Water Act permit,” they wrote. “Second, Mr. Ingram and several others from Arizona made off-cycle donations on October 6, 2017, and the days immediately preceding and following, totaling $241,600 to President Trump’s joint fundraising committee, the Trump Victory. Fund, and to the Republican National Committee.Third, Assistant Secretary Bernhardt held a meeting with a DOI lawyer who had been instrumental in overturning the Vigneto decision.

Grijalva and Porter’s letter to Garland aligns with CNN’s previous report about the department’s reversal of the decision.

“The results of this survey show us once again that the previous administration set aside the expertise of career staff as it handed over decisions from federal agencies to Trump cronies and major donors on a pay-as-you-go basis. The villages of Vigneto may not be a household name for many Americans, but for Arizonans it has posed an imminent threat to our fragile desert ecosystem for years,” said Grijalva, who represents the Third Congressional District. of Arizona, in a statement to CNN. “I strongly urge the Department of Justice to undertake this investigation and ensure that the right people are held accountable for what they did and how they betrayed the trust of the American people.”

CNN’s Scott Bronstein, Drew Griffin and Audrey Ash contributed to this report.

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