Hiltzik: The stench of Trump’s Cabinet lingers

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The Trump administration may have disappeared from Washington, but the acrid stench of corruption lingers.

Case in point: an allegation that former Interior Secretary David Bernhardt pressured agency staff to approve a controversial Arizona housing estate in exchange for political donations to then-President Trump by the builder and his associates.

The allegation came in a request issued Wednesday by House Democrats for a criminal investigation by the Justice Department to determine whether the Interior Department’s endorsement and contributions to Trump represent “a potentially criminal crime.” “. misunderstanding.”

I got rolled.

— Steve Spangle, former Home Office official

The referral letter was signed by Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Arizona), chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, and Rep. Katie Porter (D-Irvine), chair of its Oversight and Compliance Subcommittee. investigation.

In an email, Bernhardt called the letter “a pathetic attempt…to fabricate news.”

The committee’s request involved complex environmental approval maneuvering for the Villages of Vigneto, a planned community of 28,000 homes, plus a golf course, resort and proposed commercial development for a 12,300-acre lot at the outside of Tucson.

The project has been in the works for nearly 20 years, but has been consistently opposed by environmental groups and questioned by the Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service, which has long argued that it required detailed biological analysis by the Army Corps of Engineers to determine its impact. on several endangered species.

The agency maintained this position until the end of 2017, when it suddenly reversed. (His overthrow has since been reversed by the Biden administration.)

Around the time of the initial inversion, project developer Michael Ingram and several of his business associates made what the committee said were unusual donations to the Trump campaign totaling $241,600, to the Trump campaign and to the Republican National Committee – most of them on the same day, October 6, 2017.

It was also the day the Corps of Engineers changed its position and headed for development approval and Bernhardt, then Assistant Secretary of the Interior, met with a senior attorney from the Department of the Interior.

Lanny J. Davis, a spokesperson for Ingram, calls Grijalva and Porter’s reference “false, misleading, unfair, and seems to me to be reminiscent of McCarthyism’s use of innuendo as a substitute for fact.” He told me that there was “no wrongdoing on the part of Mr. Ingram” and that “the final decision was made based on the law and the facts.”

Davis also produced a 2019 exchange of letters between the Corps and the Fish and Wildlife Service in which the two agencies attested that they had independently reviewed the decision-making process regarding Vigneto and judged him appropriate. Davis said the referral to the committee should have cited the exchange.

Among the political donors named by Grijalva and Porter are Arte Moreno, owner of major league baseball’s Los Angeles Angels, and his wife, Carole. Arte Moreno, like most of the other named donors, is an associate of the developer, Michael Ingram — both sit on the board of the TGen Foundation, which raises money for biotech research in Arizona.

The committee’s letter does not specifically accuse the Morenos of wrongdoing, although it does ask the Justice Department to ‘investigate and consider whether criminal charges should be brought against any party’ for breaking the law. federal anti-corruption.

The Morenos’ contributions fit what the committee calls a suspicious pattern, in which many donations were made on October 6, 2017, the same day as key developments furthering Ingram’s development plans.

According to Open Secrets, a database of campaign contribution records, Arte and Carole Moreno each donated $5,400 to the Trump campaign on Oct. 6. These are the only donations to Trump by registered Morenos, despite having expressed support for Trump in the past.

“Mr. Moreno has nothing to do with this development,” Marie Garvey, the businessman’s spokesperson, told me, referring to the Vigneto project. date and served on TGen’s board of directors for several years alongside several prominent businessmen.”

Before delving into Vigneto’s machinations, a few words about Bernhardt and his role in the Interior.

When Trump appointed Bernhardt to assistant secretary of the interior — the agency’s No. 2 job — in April 2017, his potential conflicts of interest took center stage. As we reported, he would be placed prominently at an agency dealing with water and energy clients who had paid his firm millions of dollars in lobbying and legal fees. of lawyers, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck.

Bernhardt has pledged to recuse himself from matters related to his former clients for one year. Almost immediately after the year expired, he surfaced with an op-ed in The Washington Post attacking the federal Endangered Species Act – a law he had sued the interior for on behalf of giant Westlands Water. District in California.

Applying the Endangered Species Act to future water projects was of deep interest to Westlands and other similar agribusinesses, not to mention the other industries that Bernhardt represented as a private attorney. .

In any event, even during the recusal period, Bernhardt allegedly participated in discussions to reopen the environmental analysis of water flows, with a view to increasing them. This would obviously benefit his ex-client Westlands. Home Office ethics officials have twisted themselves in rhetorical knots to give Bernhardt’s actions an impeccable bill of health.

After Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke resigned under an ethical cloud in 2019, Trump named Bernhardt as Zinke’s successor. Critics saw the appointment as a blatant travesty of the principles of good government. The liberal Center for American Progress called Bernhardt “Trump’s most divisive cabinet candidate.”

“Of the 27 former clients and employers with potential conflicts of interest that Bernhardt disclosed on his ethics forms,” noted the Center for American Progress, “lobbying disclosure data reveals that 20 actively lobbied the Home Office since early 2017.” This figure eclipsed “the known direct conflicts of interest of other Cabinet nominees.”

Zinke and Bernhardt presided over what the Union of Concerned Scientists called a “monumental disaster” for science at the Home Office in 2018. The Union of Concerned Scientists report detailed how, in the space of Within two years, they had transformed the interior from a steward of public lands and natural resources into a front for the mining, oil and gas industries.

Bernhardt’s fingerprints featured on some of the most disturbing attacks on science inside, the Union of Concerned Scientists has found. These included a December 2017 order revoking and rescinding a series of Obama-era directives and reports on how the department should integrate climate science into its work. The ordinance effectively removed the Interior’s climate change policy.

This brings us back to the Vigneto case.

The development had been at the center of long-term disputes between the Army Corps, which was inclined to push the project through, and Fish and Wildlife, which believed its potential impacts were serious enough to warrant high-level consultation between the two. agencies, as needed. by the law.

The Fish and Wildlife field supervisor overseeing the project, Steve Spangle, has always been supported by his colleagues there and by superiors at Interior. The Environmental Protection Agency has also raised objections to the project.

That changed after Trump took office. First, the Army Corps signaled its intention to approve the project without the agreement of the Interior. Then a flurry of meetings and calls involving Bernhardt, Ingram, and others took place, some of which did not appear in 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 stance on Vigneto at the request of a “high level politico”. . Romanik and Bernhardt had met that morning, although the subject of the meeting was not disclosed. Spangle said he worked under pressure to issue an edited opinion on Vigneto in a way that wouldn’t make political influence obvious.

The Army Corps finally greenlighted the project in October 2018, but suspended its approval the following February after environmental groups filed a lawsuit challenging its action.

Spangle retired from the Interior in March 2018 and began telling his story publicly. “I got ripped off,” he told his local newspaper, the Arizona Daily Star, and later repeated to CNN. He said Romanik told him “a high-level politician from the Home Office” asked him to call him to cancel his post.

He complied, he said, because “my job is that I work for the administration. The position of the administration takes precedence over mine. But he said he had never come under political pressure over a decision in his 34 years of government service.

For nearly 20 years, the Home Office argued that a major property development on environmentally fragile land required careful scientific study.

After the business-friendly Trump administration took over, the agency suddenly did an about-face for a well-connected Republican businessman.

This happened while Interior was led by a team that saw its goal as promoting development, minimizing scientific judgments, and disregarding long-standing environmental regulations. Meanwhile, Trump’s campaign coffers swelled.

What are all these allegations and denials? Something that smells rotten in the state of Arizona. Let’s see the DOJ take these allegations seriously and launch an investigation.

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