Evidence of a 2017 quid pro quo for development permits connected to a massive master planned community proposed in the Arizona desert led the House Natural Resources Committee to take unprecedented action in 2022.
Ben Adler reports for Yahoo News on the latest development in a development controversy in Arizona that dates to the Trump administration.
The House Natural Resources Committee announced its first-ever criminal referral to the Department of Justice on Wednesday, asking it to investigate whether Mike Ingram, an Arizona real estate developer and a campaign donor to Donald Trump, bribed public officials during Trump’s tenure as president, including then-Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt.
According to Adler, the House committee has been investigating the circumstances surrounding a 2017 decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) “to reverse its previous opposition to a proposed housing development in Benson, Ariz., called Villages at Vigneto.”
The Villages at Vigneto provided a steady stream of controversy back in 2019, making the Planetizen newsfeed most recently in 2021 when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers revoked the development’s permits in July 2021.
A statement by Natural Resources Committee Chair Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) lambasted the evidence of a quid pro quo as evidence 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.”
“Allowing the development of 28,000 homes, golf courses, resorts, and other commercial buildings to suck the San Pedro River dry during a time of unprecedented drought is nonsensical on its face and agency staff were right to be concerned,” added Rep. Grijalva to voice opposition to the project in the statement.
The investigation was launched when a whistleblower by the name of Steve Spangle, a now-retired Field Supervisor at FWS’ Arizona office, revealed that he’d been directed by then-Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt to reverse the previous decision by the Fish and Wildlife Service. Tony Davis reported on the bombshell revelation for the Arizona Daily Star in April 2019.
Bernhardt was appointed to run the Interior Department after serving under the scandal-plagued leadership of predecessor Ryan Zinke. Before joining the Trump administration, Bernhardt worked as a lobbyist for several oil and gas companies.
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