Energy & Environment

Democrats ask DOJ to investigate Trump-era Interior boss’s dealings with donor

Greg Nash

Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee are asking the Department of Justice (DOJ) to investigate Trump-era Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, alleging that he may have engaged in a “quid pro quo” relating to a clean water permit. 

The committee, for the first time in its history, made a criminal referral to the DOJ over the situation on Wednesday.

Lawmakers raised concerns that the federal government changed its position on a permit around the same time that the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee received donations from a beneficiary of the reversal.

The donations in question, which totaled nearly $250,000, were off cycle and “highly unusual,” according to the referral.

“These facts raise serious concerns about a potentially criminal quid pro quo,” wrote committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) in a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland. 

Bernhardt did not immediately respond to The Hill’s requests for comment. A representative for the beneficiary, Mike Ingram, owner of developer El Dorado Holdings, said there was no wrongdoing. 

“Everything that Mr. Ingram did and that El Dorado did was about asking the government to look at the facts and the law. Period. Nothing in return for campaign contributions. Nothing in return for political relationships,” Lanny Davis, attorney adviser to El Dorado, told The Hill.

Davis has contributed opinion articles to The Hill.

The accusations stem from a Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) reversal of its position on a permit for a development project in Arizona known as the Villages at Vigneto.

Now-retired FWS Field Supervisor Steve Spangle told the Arizona Daily Star in 2019 that he had been pressured by a “high-level politico” to reverse a decision that would have required a detailed analysis of how the development could impact endangered species.

He said at the time that he had been “overruled” and in an October 2017 letter reversed course in a way that made it easier for the project to get a Clean Water Act permit. 

The Democrats’ report notes that in August 2017, Bernhardt and Ingram met over breakfast.

They also note that on Oct. 6, 2017, when the permit’s revaluation was announced, Ingram donated $10,000 to the Trump Victory Fund (TVF), a committee that gives funds to both the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee (RNC).

Between Oct. 5, 2017, and Oct. 10, 2017, Ingram and 12 other donors from Arizona contributed a total of $147,000 to the same organization, the referral said. And it noted that one donor gave an additional $94,600 to the RNC.

“This level of donor activity was not typical,” the document said. “Throughout the entire 2017–2018 election cycle, there were no other days in which more than three people from Arizona donated $2,700 or more to TVF.”

But Davis, who represents El Dorado, said that the company and Ingram did not do anything wrong. He characterized the meeting with Bernhardt as an effort to counteract environmental activism and stress the truth.

“The reason Mike Ingram did what he did was because of political lobbying and media that was occurring from the environmental groups. He wanted to stress ‘only look at the facts and the law here,’” Davis said in an interview.

In a statement, he also characterized the report as “false, misleading [and] unfair.”

“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,” he said. 

An expert with the Campaign Legal Center, a government watchdog, told The Hill that the circumstances appear suspicious and merit the criminal referral.

“The amount of money that went to the Trump campaign and the timing of those contributions so close to the administration’s decision is highly suspicious and worth investigation,” said Adav Noti, the center’s vice president and legal director. 

Noah Bookbinder, president of the nonpartisan ethics watchdog nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, called the move “significant.”

“I think it’s significant,” Bookbinder told The Hill. “The Department of Justice has no obligation to do anything with a referral from Congress, but it suggests that this committee after an investigation is really concerned about this and thinks the evidence is very much worth looking into.” 

Bookbinder added that regardless of whether it rises to the level of criminal conduct, “it certainly seems like really problematic behavior by former Secretary Bernhardt that you have what appears to be a total disregard for the unanimous view of career staff experts at the agency. … You have intervention on behalf of industry [and] on behalf of politically connected people and donors that we saw again and again in the Trump administration.”  

However, he noted, more general access in exchange for political contributions is “unfair” but “permitted in our system.” Conversely, he said, “having an agreement and campaign contributions in exchange for specific government action, that’s bribery. And so that’s really the central question.” 

Zack Budryk contributed.

Updated at 2 p.m.

Tags David Bernhardt David Bernhardt Department of Justice DOJ House Natural Resources Committee Interior Department Katie Porter Lanny Davis Merrick Garland

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