House committee refers former Trump Interior Secretary David Bernhardt for criminal prosecution

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.

Since 2019, the House committee has investigated a decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in October 2017 to reverse its previous opposition to a proposed housing development in Benson, Ariz., called Villages at Vigneto. That decision was reversed again in July 2021, after Joe Biden took office as president.

President Donald Trump listens to U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt speak.
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and President Donald Trump in the White House on July 8, 2019. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

According to a committee report in August 2017, Steve Spangle, who was then an FWS field supervisor, received a phone call during which an attorney from the Interior Department’s Office of the Solicitor asked Spangle to reverse his decision that the Army Corps of Engineers must consult with FWS before reinstating the then-suspended Clean Water Act permit for the Villages at Vigneto. The report said the phone call “was directed by Dep. Sec. Bernhardt” after he met with Ingram. Bernhardt went on to serve as secretary of the interior from 2019 to 2021.

“Evidence strongly suggests the decision was the result of a quid pro quo between Vigneto’s developer, Michael Ingram, and senior level officials in the Trump administration, potentially including then-DOI Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt,” the committee report concluded.

“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,” Natural Resources Committee Chair Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., said in a statement released Wednesday.

Democrat Raul Grijalva, in bolo tie with turquoise, speaks at a House Natural Resources Committee hearing.
House Natural Resources Committee Chair Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., at a hearing in 2020. (Michael Reynolds/Pool via Reuters)

The Vigneto development is in an ecologically sensitive area, according to the committee. “The land on which Vigneto would be developed is located approximately two miles upland from the San Pedro River, the last major free-flowing river in the desert Southwest,” the committee's report states. “The surrounding ecosystem is a fragile, yet critically important habitat for many unique species of wildlife and is considered a critical corridor for millions of migratory songbirds.”

As a result, the Army Corps was legally obligated to consult with FWS under the Endangered Species Act, but withdrew its request for consultation after Trump took office. The committee also documents that Ingram and a dozen other donors in Arizona, some of whom have business ties to Ingram, donated a total of $241,600 to the Republican National Committee, Donald Trump for President and state GOP committees in 2017.

Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., who chairs the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the Natural Resources Committee, issued a statement explicitly alleging corruption in the Trump administration.

“An exchange of money for a specific government action is the clearest form of corruption there is, and Americans — Democrats, Republicans, and Independents — share an understanding that this kind of quid pro quo erodes our democracy,” Porter said. “In this case, our oversight uncovered that the Trump administration’s Department of the Interior overruled local career professionals and reversed a long-standing position on environmental review requirements, just weeks after politically connected donors made nearly a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of contributions benefiting the Trump campaign. This concerning fact pattern demands additional fact finding, at a minimum, so the American people have answers on whether the Trump administration was acting in the public’s interest or the interests of the highest bidder.”

Rep. Katie Porter at a hearing.
Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., chair of the House Natural Resources Committee's Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, in 2019. (Erin Scott/Reuters)

Bernhardt did not respond to Yahoo News’ request for comment before publication, nor did a spokesperson for Trump. Ingram’s real estate firm, El Dorado Holdings, sent a statement by its attorney Lanny Davis, a Washington, D.C., lawyer famous for his many high-profile political clients.

“The referral sent by Chairman Grijalva and Subcommittee Chairwoman Porter is false, misleading, unfair, and strikes me as reminiscent of McCarthyism’s use of innuendo as a surrogate for fact,” Davis said. “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. Unfortunately, the American people have been numbed and accustomed to political attacks that have little to do with the truth, and there needs to be bipartisan outrage when this occurs. It doesn’t matter if it’s a Democratic or Republican committee or a Democratic or Republican administration. I intend to spend every minute I can visiting with the Democratic and Republican members of this Committee to persuade them that what was done by the Chairman and Subcommittee Chairwoman was unjust and utterly failed to report the facts of no wrongdoing by Mr. Ingram or El Dorado. I still believe the final decision was made based on the law and the facts.”

After this story was published, Davis sent an additional statement, which reads, in part: “The authors of the Committee referral to DOJ conveniently misled when they failed to quote from an independent review by local U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service officials to address the charge that the permit for the Vigneto project was continued because of political influence." Davis argues that the internal FWS review absolved Ingram of improper influencing FWS employees.

Environmental advocacy groups critical of DOI’s record during the Trump era saw the referral as vindication.

“We said all along that David Bernhardt was too compromised and too corrupt to be a Cabinet secretary,” said Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities, in a statement. “This is damning evidence of a straight up pay-for-play favor. Mike Ingram got a secret meeting with David Bernhardt early in the Trump administration. Then the very same day that Bernhardt flipped the career officials under him, the cash flowed into the Trump campaign.”