Democrats seek criminal charges against Trump’s interior chief

WASHINGTON (AP) — Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee on Wednesday asked the Justice Department to investigate whether a Trump administration interior secretary engaged in possible criminal conduct while helping an Arizona developer obtain 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.

Democratic Representatives Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, chair of the committee, and Katie Porter of California, who leads a subcommittee on oversight and investigations, 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.

In this March 10, 2020, file photo of Interior Secretary David Bernhardt testifies before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on the FY21 budget in Washington.

AP Photo/Susan Walsh, file

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, 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, called the Democrats’ letter “a pathetic attempt by career politicians to fabricate news.”

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 distributed federal agency decisions to Trump friends 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 the chance to refute the referral’s allegations or even the 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. .

Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the left-leaning Center for Western Priorities, called the allegations against Bernhardt “extremely serious,” adding that the Justice Department should launch a full investigation.

“We have always said that David Bernhardt was too compromised and too corrupt to be cabinet secretary. This is overwhelming evidence of a direct payment favor for gambling,” she said.

Associated Press writer Michael Balsamo contributed to this report.

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