Was Published

1 week ago

News Source: cnn.com
Whistleblower Says He Was Pressured By Trump Administration To Reverse Environmental Decision
decision summer housing

Whistleblower Says He Was Pressured By Trump Administration To Reverse Environmental Decision

(CNN)In the summer of 2017, Arizona developer Mike Ingram's proposed housing and golf course project in the desert was facing a road block because of a decision by the Department of the Interior.

Former FWS official Steve Spangle The meetings and the reversal suggest yet another example of Trump administration officials siding with executives and business leaders in the industries for which they have oversight. A lawsuit filed by environmental groups earlier this year has put the project on hold once again. The House Committee on Natural Resources is also investigating what happened. Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva has asked Interior for documents and raising "questions about whether a key permit decision at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was inappropriately reversed." A phone call and a reversal The Villages at Vigneto is designed as a development of 28,000 homes, golf courses and a resort community planned for the sprawling patch of mesquite scrub expanse just east of Benson, Arizona. Local officials welcome the development; Benson Mayor Toney King said it's desperately needed to bring jobs back to the area. "We've been fighting really hard to get growth here," King told CNN. "We've had generations of kids that have left and they can't come back. There are no jobs." Interior declined to answer any of CNN's specific questions for this story, and instead provided a one sentence statement: "U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has reexamined the issue at hand and using the best available science as required under the Endangered Species Act issued the same exact conclusion." Lanny Davis, a prominent Democratic attorney representing Ingram's El Dorado Holdings, told CNN there is no evidence of any political influence by his client, and any suggestion of influence is "innuendo."

This August, 2013 photo provided by Point Blue Conservation Science shows a yellow-billed cuckoo, which has made the western United States its breeding ground for many years. But the migratory bird, which otherwise lives in Latin America, has seen its population dwindle in the past few decades because its habitats have been marred. NThe U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Thursday, Oct. 2, 2014, announced that the western population of the yellow-billed cuckoo has been listed as a threatened species and will be protected under the Endangered Species Act. The bird resides in 12 western states and in Mexico and Canada, but Arizona has the largest population. (AP Photo/Point Blue Conservation Science, Mark Dettling) He ordered that a full scale "biological assessment," which can take months and bring additional litigation, was needed before the project could move ahead. He also wrote that the Clean Water Act permit issued earlier by the Army Corps "should not have been issued." Spangle assumed the project would move ahead with the assessment he ordered, like other projects he had worked on. Then in August 2017, he says, he received an unusual phone call from Peg Romanik, an associate solicitor at the Interior Department. "[S]he told me that she had gotten a call from a high-level political appointee within the Department of the Interior who informed her that our position out here, in Arizona, was not the position of the administration," Spangle told CNN. During that call, Spangle said he was strongly pressured to reverse his decision on Vigneto; his reversal would remove a major hurdle for the project and allow it to move forward without the in-depth biological assessment he asked for. Romanik met with Bernhardt at 8:30 a.m. the same day that she called Spangle, according to Bernhardt's calendar, which does not list what was discussed. The phone call and reversal were first reported by the Arizona Daily Star, but the name of the solicitor and her meeting with Bernhardt have not been previously reported. Spangle said it was the first time in his career that he was asked to change an official decision he had made, saying it "wasn't a good feeling, but I felt I had a duty. I work for the administration, I have to do what I'm told, and so I did." On October 26, 2017, Spangle issued a new decision, reversing his earlier letter, and allowing the project to move ahead without the full biological assessment. He retired four months later. Romanik did not return a call requesting comment. Developer's contacts with Trump administration Ingram is a wealthy and powerful figure in Arizona. El Dorado Holdings is one of the largest private landholders in the southwestern US, with assets exceeding $1 billion. Ingram is also one of the owners of the Arizona Diamondbacks, the state's Major League Baseball team. CNN has found a trail of contacts between the developer and top government officials, along with political contributions, that raise questions of access and influence. Ingram co-chaired a "Camouflage and Cufflinks" fundraiser around the time of Trump's inauguration, which offered a private reception with the President, and a hunting trip with Donald Trump Jr, and Eric Trump in exchange for a $500,000 donation. The event was canceled after ethical questions surfaced over buying access to the President and his sons. An avid hunter, Ingram is a director of the non-profit Safari Club International Foundation, which Bernhardt formerly represented as an attorney, according to Bernhardt's financial disclosure statement. Ingram was also appointed by then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to the International Wildlife Conservation Council, an official federal group set up to advise on issues related to "citizens traveling to foreign nations to engage in hunting," according to its website. Several weeks after Spangle received the phone call asking for his reversal, Ingram made a one- time $10,000 donation to the Trump Victory Fund. Since November 2015, Ingram donated $50,900 to political committees supporting Trump. In the same time frame, Ingram donated $6,050 to Democrats. Since the beginning of the Trump administration, Ingram or his representatives had at least 11 meetings, emails or phone calls with top officials at Interior and EPA, including one meeting with Zinke, two meetings and three emails with then-EPA Secretary Scott Pruitt, and at least five meetings with Bernhardt, who succeeded Zinke as Interior secretary earlier this year. Ingram declined CNN's request for an interview, but Davis, El Dorado Holding's attorney, says his client has done nothing wrong. "The innuendo is, well, he's close to Trump, there must've been political influence," Davis said in an interview, adding, "That's just innuendo. I can't negate that because it's a quote 'feeling.'" While Davis confirmed to CNN the meetings between Ingram and administration officials, he said there was nothing untoward about them.