For the first time in its history, the House Natural Resources Committee made a criminal referral, sending a letter to the Department of Justice outlining a possible “criminal quid pro quo“ between Trump administration officials and a real estate developer.
The case revolves around Arizona developer Michael Ingram, who was initially denied approval to build a golf course and housing project but then got a reversal from the government after meeting with a Trump administration official and donating money to the Trump victory fund and to the Republican National Committee.
“The facts here are really shocking. This is a quid pro quo. That’s what it appears to be. In return for making a quarter-million dollars of donations to the Trump victory fund and to the Republican National Committee, this developer was basically able to buy his way around environmental protection law,” Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA) who is on the committee, said.
Ingram, the owner of El Dorado Holdings, sought to develop the “Villages at Vigneto,” a 28,000-unit housing and commercial development near the endangered San Pedro River in Benson, Arizona, according to a press release from the committee. His project got held up after Steve Spangle, a field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, determined the development could have adverse effects on threatened and endangered species in the area.
On Aug. 18, 2017, Ingram had breakfast with then-Department of Interior Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, according to the release, which cited media reports. Several weeks later, Spangle was told that a “high-level politico” wanted him to reverse the decision on the development project.
On Oct. 6, 2017, the Army Corps of Engineers announced it was reopening the permit process for the project it previously denied, according to Porter. Ingram and 12 others connected to him donated $241,600 to the Trump victory fund and to the Republican National Committee that same day, the release claims. About three weeks later, Spangle reversed the decision.
“All 13 individuals donated in a similar pattern, indicating a coordinated effort. Conspicuously, 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 the Trump Victory Fund,” the release stated.
Bernhardt blasted the committee in response to its criminal referral.
“Reps. Raul Grijalva and Katie Porter’s letter is a thinly veiled attempt by career politicians to fabricate news — a poor distraction from their progressive Green New Deal agenda that facilitated an energy crisis, tanked our economy, led to historic inflation, and failed the American people,” Bernhardt said in a statement to the Washington Examiner.
“I encourage the Committee to release all of the documents they were provided by Interior on this matter,” he said. “After making these allegations, providing these records is the only way to ensure the public is fully informed.”
The committee’s investigation was triggered by a 2019 report from Arizona Daily Star reporter Tony Davis, which detailed Spangle’s account. Spangle has since retired from the role.
In addition to its allegations against Bernhardt, the committee alleges that other Trump administration officials, including a Department of Interior attorney, may have participated in the scheme.
“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,” Committee Chairman Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) said. “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.”