Hiltzik: The stench of Trump’s cabinet persists

The Trump administration may have moved out of Washington, but the acrid stench of corruption survives.

Case in point: An allegation that former Home Secretary David Bernhardt pressured agency staff to approve a controversial Arizona housing development in exchange for political donations to then-President Trump from the developer and its partners.

The accusation has arrived a request issued Wednesday by the House of Democrats for a criminal investigation by the Department of Justice that the Department of Interior approval and contributions to Trump represent “a potential criminal quid pro quo. ”

I rolled.

– Former interior department official Steve Spangle

The referral letter was signed by Representative Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources, and Representative Katie Porter (D-Irvine), Chair of its Subcommittee on Supervision and Investigation.

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

The committee’s request involved intricate environmental approval maneuvers for the Vineyard Villages, a planned community of 28,000 housing units, as well as a proposed golf course, resort and commercial development for a 12,300-acre stretch outside Tucson.

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

The agency held that position until late 2017, when it suddenly reversed. (Its cancellation has since been overruled by the Biden administration.)

Around the time of the original reversal, project developer Michael Ingram and several of his business associates did what the committee labeled as unusual donations to Trump’s campaign totaling $ 241,600, to Trump’s campaign and to the Republican National Committee, most of them on the same day, October 6, 2017.

That was also the day the Corps of Engineers changed positions and moved towards approval of the development and Bernhardt, the then Deputy Interior Secretary, met with a senior attorney from the Department of the Interior.

Lanny J. Davis, a spokesman for Ingram, calls the postponement of Grijalva and Porter “false, misleading, unjust and it seems to me that it reminds me of McCarthyism’s use of allusions as a substitute for facts.” He told me that “there was no wrongdoing on the part of Mr. Ingram” and that “the final decision was made on the basis of the law and the facts”.

Davis also produced a letter exchange in 2019 between the Army Corps Other the Fish and Wildlife Service in which both agencies have certified that they have independently examined the decision-making process on Vigneto and that they have deemed it appropriate. Davis said the committee’s postponement should have cited the exchange.

Political donors named by Grijalva and Porter include Arte Moreno, owner of the major league baseball Los Angeles Angels, and his wife, Carole. Arte Moreno, like most of the other nominated donors, is a partner in the developer, Michael Ingram, both of whom serve on the board of directors of the TGen Foundation, which raises funds for biotechnology research in Arizona.

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

The Moreno contributions correspond to what the committee believes is a suspicious model, in which numerous donations were made on October 18. 6, 2017, the same day as key developments in favor of Ingram’s development plans.

According to Open Secrets, a database of records of campaign contributions, Arte and Carole Moreno each donated $ 5,400 to Trump’s campaign on October 18. 6. These are the only donations recorded to Trump by the Morenoos, although they have expressed support for Trump in the past.

“Mr. Moreno has nothing to do with this development,” Marie Garvey, spokesperson for the entrepreneur, told me, referring to the Vineyard project. “He is a longtime Republican supporter and donor and has served on TGen’s board for several years together with several important businessmen “.

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

When Trump appointed Bernhardt as Deputy Secretary of the Interior, the No. 2nd place at the agency: In April 2017, its potential conflicts of interest took center stage. As we have reportedhe would have a prominent position within a customer agency in the water and energy industries that had paid millions of dollars in lobbying and legal fees to his law firm, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck.

Bernhardt has pledged to recuse himself from matters relating to his former clients for one year. Almost immediately after the end of the year, he emerged with an editorial in the Washington Post attacking the Federal Endangered Species Act, a statute on which he had the southern interior on behalf of California’s gigantic Westlands Water District.

The application of the Endangered Species Act to future water projects was of deep interest to Westlands and other similar agribusiness companies, not to mention other industries that Bernhardt represented as a private lawyer.

In any case, even during the recusal period, Bernhardt would have participated in discussions aimed at reopening the environmental analysis of water flows, with the aim of increasing them. This would clearly benefit his former Westlands client. Department of Interior Ethics Officers they twisted in rhetorical knots to give Bernhardt’s shares a certificate of good health.

After Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke resigned under an ethics cloud in 2019, Trump named Bernhardt as Zinke’s successor. Critics saw the appointment as a flagrant mockery of good governance principles. The American Liberal Center for Progress has labeled Bernhardt “Trump is the most confrontational cabinet candidate “.

“Of the 27 former clients and employers with potential conflicts of interest that Bernhardt disclosed on its ethics forms, “noted the Center for American Progress,” lobbying disclosure data reveals that 20 have actively lobbied the Department of the Interior since early 2017. “The figure belittled” known direct conflicts of interest. of other cabinet candidates “.

Zinke and Bernhardt chaired what the Union of Interested Scientists called a monumental disaster for science at the Department of the Interior in 2018. Il Report of the Union of Interested Scientists detailed how within two years they had transformed Interior from a steward of public lands and natural resources into a front for the mining and oil and gas industries.

Bernhardt’s fingerprints have been found on some of the most disturbing assaults on science within, the Union of Concerned Scientists. These included a December 2017 order revoke and revoke a bundle of Obama-era directives and reports on how the department should integrate climate science into its work. The order effectively canceled Interior’s climate change policy.

This brings us back to the Vigneto case.

The development had been at the center of long-term conflicts between the Army Corps, which was keen to take the project forward, and Fish and Wildlife, which thought its potential impacts were severe enough to warrant high-level consultation. level between the two agencies as required by law.

Fish and Wildlife Field Supervisor who oversaw the project, Steve Spangle, was constantly supported by his colleagues and Interior’s superiors. The Environmental Protection Agency also raised objections to the project.

The situation changed after Trump took office. First, the Army Corps signaled its intention to approve the project without Interior’s agreement. Then, there was a flurry of meetings and calls involving Bernhardt, Ingram and others, some of which did not appear on Bernhardt’s official schedule.

On August 31, 2017, Spangle said he received a phone call from interior lawyer Peg Romanik claiming he was tasked with changing his position on Vigneto at the request of a “high-level politician.” Romanik and Bernhardt had met that morning, although the subject of the meeting was not disclosed. Spangle said he worked under pressure to issue a modified opinion on Vigneto in a way that didn’t make political influence obvious.

The Army Corps eventually gave the green light to the project in October 2018, but suspended approval the following February after environmental groups filed a lawsuit to challenge the action.

Spangle retired from Interior in March 2018 and began telling his story publicly. “I was fired,” he told his local newspaper, the Arizona Daily Star, and afterwards repeated on CNN. She said that Romanik had told him “that a senior politician in the Department of the Interior” had ordered her to call him to revoke her position.

He respected, he said, because “my job is to work for the administration. The administration’s position takes precedence over mine. ”But she said she never received political pressure for a decision in his 34 years of service in the government.

For nearly 20 years, the Department of the Interior has firmly believed that major real estate development on ecologically fragile land required careful scientific study.

Following the arrival of the business-friendly Trump administration, the agency suddenly staged an about-face for a well-connected Republican businessman.

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

What do all these accusations and denials add up to? Something that smells like rotten in the state of Arizona. We see that the Justice Department takes these allegations seriously and launches an investigation.