PHOENIX (AP) — A congressional committee is investigating whether the U.S. Interior Department helped an Arizona developer and supporter of President Donald Trump get a crucial permit after a wildlife official said the housing project would threaten habitat for imperiled species.
U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat who chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources, is leading an investigation into the proposed 28,000-home development in a small town in southern Arizona.
"It's not clear to me why top Interior officials would weigh in on a local land development unless someone was being done a huge favor," Grijalva said in a statement Wednesday.
The committee sent a letter last week to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt saying recent reports raised questions about whether the permit decision by the Fish and Wildlife Service "was inappropriately reversed."
It set a July 29 deadline for the Interior Department to turn over "all documents and communications" on the hotly contested El Dorado Holdings project developed by Mike Ingram, a co-owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks baseball team and a prominent Republican donor.
The Interior Department defends the permit as a science-based decision.
Described as a 19-square-mile (49-square-kilometer) housing and golf course development that would draw traffic to the city of Benson, the project had been in a holding pattern for more than a decade. It gained traction in 2015 when El Dorado Holdings took over the project and rebranded it Villages at Vigneto.
A coalition of conservation groups challenged the permit in a federal lawsuit in January. Environmentalists argue the project's need for groundwater will threaten the San Pedro River and surrounding wildlife, including birds like the southwestern willow flycatcher and yellow-billed cuckoo as well as the northern Mexican garter snake.
They are demanding federal officials conduct a more in-depth environmental review.
Steve Spangle, a retired Fish and Wildlife Service field supervisor, told the Arizona Daily Star in April that he had similar concerns in 2016 but was pressured a year later to facilitate the permit anyway.
He has since told several media outlets that he "got rolled" by politics.
"I used that phrase to distinguish it from making a policy call based on fact, as opposed to making a policy call based on politics," Spangle told the newspaper.
He says an attorney with the Interior Department's solicitor's office warned him that a "high-level politico" thought he should change his assessment in favor of the development.
Emails and calendars show that Bernhardt, as deputy Interior secretary, had an unofficial meeting at a lodge in Billings, Montana, with Ingram, the developer, in August 2017, CNN reported Tuesday.
They discussed Villages at Vigneto, the congressional committee said.
Lanny Davis, attorney for El Dorado Holdings, said Ingram did not lobby for the project. Then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, whom Ingram has known for several years, found out both men would coincidentally be at the same hunting lodge and suggested they meet.
"I believe Mr. Ingram presented a legal memo to Mr. Bernhardt," Davis told The Associated Press. "It's exactly the opposite of the innuendo that this was about lobbying and political influence."
Two months after the meeting, Ingram donated $10,000 to a fundraising arm of the Trump campaign. That donation was later refunded, as was two $2,700 donations.
Davis said Ingram got a refund so he could donate instead to a political action committee that allows contributors to give more money than campaigns do.
"This is very common for (political) fundraisers. I've done that many times myself," Davis said.
In the wake of Spangle's allegations, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sent a letter to the Fish and Wildlife Service asking if its opinion on the permit had changed. Jeff Humphrey, an agency official in Arizona, said Spangle's comments "do not change our previous determinations."
The Interior Department, which is the parent agency of the Fish and Wildlife Service, reiterated that stance in a statement Tuesday.
"U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has re-examined the issue at hand and using the best available science as required under the Endangered Species Act issued the same exact conclusion," Interior spokeswoman Molly Block said.
El Dorado Holdings has already shared communications with the House committee, including an email from Ingram to Zinke about the meeting in Montana, Davis said. It was nothing more than a legal memo and summary, the attorney said.
"He didn't say, 'Hey, you and I have been buddies,'" Davis said.
Rep. Grijalva, however, was skeptical.
"I have real doubts whether Mr. Ingram sold this project to the Interior Department on merits," he said.
Associated Press writer Ellen Knickmeyer in Washington contributed to this report.