WASHINGTON (AP) — Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee asked the Ministry of Justice t Wednesday to investigate whether a Trump administration interior secretary engaged in possible criminal conduct while he helping an Arizona developer secure a crucial permit for a housing project.
The criminal referral says David Bernhardt pushed for the project to be approved by developer Michael Ingram, a Republican donor and supporter of former President Donald Trump, despite a federal wildlife official’s conclusion that it would threaten wildlife. habitats of species at risk.
Bernhardt led the interior from 2019 to 2021. In 2017, he was the department’s No. 2 when the Fish and Wildlife Service, an agency of the Interior Department, overturned its opposition to Vigneto Villages, the proposed development of 28,000 homes in southern Arizona, and allowed it to move forward.
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Democratic Representatives Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, chairman of the committee, and Katie Porter of California, who leads an oversight and investigation subcommittee. made the referral in a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland. They said the committee conducted a thorough investigation into the circumstances surrounding the 2017 decision.
A senior interior official had said that issuing a Clean Water Act permit for the project could adversely affect endangered species or critical habitat in the area. The area is home to birds such as the southwestern willow flycatcher and yellow-billed cuckoo, as well as the northern Mexican garter snake.
In their referral, Democrats say Ingram met with Bernhardt in August 2017, two weeks before a Fish and Wildlife official received the phone call ordering him to reverse the decision to block the project. The meeting was not disclosed in Bernhardt’s public calendar or travel documents.
Two months later, Ingram donated $10,000 to the Trump Victory Fund. The permit was approved later that month. At least nine other donors associated with Ingram also donated to the Trump Victory Fund in the days following Ingram’s donation, Democrats said.
“Evidence strongly suggests that the decision was the result of quid pro quo between Vigneto developer Michael Ingram and senior Trump administration officials,” including Bernhardt, who was then Assistant Secretary of the Interior, said. write the Democrats.
Ingram “had frequent access to senior Trump administration officials,” including Bernhardt, then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and then-Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt, Democrats said. . Zinke, who led the Interior from March 2017 to January 2019, met with Ingram in May 2017 and April 2018, the Democrats said in documents submitted with the referral. Zinke and his team sent multiple emails to Ingram, using personal email addresses, Democrats said.
Bernhardt, now a lawyer in private practice, did not return calls and an email seeking comment. A Justice Department spokesperson said the department had received the letter and would review it.
Lawmakers have asked Garland to investigate and consider bringing criminal charges against Bernhardt or other officials.
“The results of this survey show us once again that the previous administration set aside the expertise of career staff as it handed over decisions from federal agencies to Trump cronies and major donors on a pay-as-you-go basis. “Grijalva said in a statement.
Porter said that “an exchange of money for specific government action is the clearest form of corruption, and Americans—Democrats, Republicans, and independents—share the understanding that this kind of quid pro quo erodes our democracy.”
Lanny Davis, an attorney for El Dorado Holdings, a company owned by Ingram, called Grijalva and Porter’s reference “false, misleading (and) unfair” and said it was using “innuendo as a substitute for fact.” .
El Dorado participated in several meetings with the committee, “acted transparently and cooperated fully without subpoena,” Davis said in a statement. Even so, the company was denied an opportunity to refute the dismissal allegations or even a chance to speak to Grijalva, Davis said.
“Unfortunately, the American people have been numb and accustomed to political attacks that have little to do with the truth, and there must be bipartisan outrage when that happens,” Davis, a prominent Democrat, added. who was special adviser to former President Bill. Clinton.
Associated Press writer Michael Balsamo contributed to this report.
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