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House Natural Resources Committee refers investigation involving former Trump officials to DOJ

<i>Sarah Silbiger/Bloomberg/Getty Images</i><br/>David Bernhardt
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Sarah Silbiger/Bloomberg/Getty Images
David Bernhardt

By Daniella Diaz, CNN

The House Committee on Natural Resources is referring an investigation involving “potentially criminal conduct” about a policy reversal involving former Trump administration officials to the Department of Justice, according to a letter obtained by CNN.

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

This is the first criminal referral by the House Committee on Natural Resources.

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

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

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

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

The committee’s referral to the Justice Department is not itself a criminal charge and it’s up to the DOJ to determine whether to further investigate.

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 the housing and golf project to be built without an in-depth biological assessment.

“I felt pressured to reverse my decision … in simplest terms, I was rolled,” Steve Spangle, then a 30-year veteran of the Fish and Wildlife Service, told CNN in an interview in 2019. “I made a decision, which was my authority to make in Arizona, and that was overruled by higher-ups in the administration.” CNN was first to report a series of meetings between Ingram and Trump administration officials, including a secret breakfast meeting between Ingram and Bernhardt that did not appear on his official calendar.

“The referral sent by Chairman Grijalva and Subcommittee Chairwoman Porter is false, misleading, unfair, and strikes me as reminiscent of McCarthyism’s use of innuendo as a surrogate for fact,” Lanny Davis, a prominent Democratic attorney representing El Dorodo, Ingram’s company, told CNN in a statement Wednesday morning. “El Dorado participated in multiple meetings with this Committee, acted in full transparency, and gave full cooperation without a subpoena. Despite this, we were denied the basic and fundamental opportunity to rebut the allegations in this referral and denied a chance to even speak to the Chairman.”

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

At the time of the whistleblower’s account in 2019, Interior declined to answer any of CNN’s specific questions for the 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.”

The letter from the lawmaker said FWS rescinded its 2017 proposal based on an internal review of “the process by which that decision was made.” And the letter said the Army Corps once again suspended the permit on July 1, 2021.

But the environmental concerns surrounding the area go back more than a decade because of its proximity to the San Pedro River and the habitats of endangered and threatened species. The remote desert landscape was initially slated for development in the early 2000s. The Environmental Protection Agency has long been opposed to building on the site, writing in 2005 that it “represented a substantial and unacceptable impact on aquatic resources of national importance,” and the EPA stance has not changed since. Opponents of the project also say 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 agreed for years that formal consultation on Vigneto’s Clean Water Act permit was required under the Endangered Species Act.”

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

After the meeting and “apparently at Dep. Sec. Bernhardt’s direction,” a Department of Interior attorney “handed down a directive to reverse FWS’ position, a process through which the primary decisionmaker and whistleblower claimed he ‘got rolled’ 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 quid pro quo.”

“First, the Army Corps formally noticed a re-evaluation of the Clean Water Act permit,” they wrote. “Second, Mr. Ingram and several others from Arizona made out-of-cycle donations on October 6, 2017, and the days immediately prior and subsequent, totaling $241,600 to then-President Trump’s joint fundraising committee, the Trump Victory Fund, and to the Republican National Committee. Third, Dep. Sec. Bernhardt held a meeting with a DOI attorney who had been instrumental in directing the reversal of the Vigneto decision.”

Grijalva and Porter’s letter to Garland is aligned with CNN’s prior reporting on the department’s reversal of the decision.

“The findings of this investigation show us yet again that the previous administration cast career staff expertise aside while they handed out federal agency decisions to Trump’s buddies and big donors on a pay-to-play basis. The Villages at Vigneto may not be a household name for many Americans, but to Arizonans, it’s been a looming threat to our fragile desert ecosystem for years,” Grijalva, who represents Arizona’s Third Congressional District, said in a statement to CNN. “I strongly urge the Justice Department to take up this investigation and make sure the right people are held accountable for what they’ve done and how they’ve betrayed the trust of the American people.”

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

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