In the summer of 2017, Arizona developer Mike Ingram’s proposed housing and golf course project in the desert was facing a road block because of a decision by the Department of the Interior.
A field supervisor for the US Fish and Wildlife Service had determined that it was “reasonably certain” that threatened and endangered species could be harmed.
But that decision suddenly changed following a secret breakfast meeting at a Montana hunting lodge between Ingram — a donor to President Donald Trump and co-owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks — and David Bernhardt, then the Trump administration’s deputy Interior secretary.
Following the meeting, which did not appear in Bernhardt’s official calendar and has not been previously reported, the field supervisor says he was pressured to reverse his decision, allowing the project to move ahead.
“I felt pressured to reverse my decision … in simplest terms, I was rolled,” Steve Spangle, then a 30-year veteran of the Fish and Wildlife Service, told CNN in an interview. “I made a decision, which was my authority to make in Arizona, and that was overruled by higher-ups in the administration.”
The meeting is one of at least 11 interactions Ingram had with top officials at the Interior Department and Environmental Protection Agency during the Trump administration, according to a CNN review of emails and calendars.
The meetings and the reversal suggest yet another example of Trump administration officials siding with executives and business leaders in the industries for which they have oversight.
A lawsuit filed by environmental groups earlier this year has put the project on hold once again. The House Committee on Natural Resources is also investigating what happened. Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva has asked Interior for documents and raising “questions about whether a key permit decision at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was inappropriately reversed.”
A phone call and a reversal
The Villages at Vigneto is designed as a development of 28,000 homes, golf courses and a resort community planned for the sprawling patch of mesquite scrub expanse just east of Benson, Arizona.
Local officials welcome the development; Benson Mayor Toney King said it’s desperately needed to bring jobs back to the area. “We’ve been fighting really hard to get growth here,” King told CNN. “We’ve had generations of kids that have left and they can’t come back. There are no jobs.”
Interior declined to answer any of CNN’s specific questions for this story, and instead provided a one sentence statement: “U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has reexamined the issue at hand and using the best available science as required under the Endangered Species Act issued the same exact conclusion.”
Lanny Davis, a prominent Democratic attorney representing Ingram’s El Dorado Holdings, told CNN there is no evidence of any political influence by his client, and any suggestion of influence is “innuendo.”
But the environmental concerns surrounding the area go back more than a decade because of its proximity to the San Pedro River and the habitats of endangered and threatened species. The remote desert landscape was initially slated for development in the early 2000s. The Environmental Protection Agency has long been opposed to building on the site, writing in 2005 that it “represented a substantial and unacceptable impact on aquatic resources of national importance,” and the EPA stance has not changed since. Opponents of the project also say the aquifer that feeds the river could be impacted.
Despite those environmental concerns, the US Army Corps of Engineers approved a Clean Water Act permit in 2006, but the 2008 recession forced the owners to sell.
Ingram bought the property with his company El Dorado Benson LLC in 2014, renaming the development the “Villages at Vigneto,” with the intention of building using the 2006 Army Corps permit.
That permit was suspended, however, in 2016 after six environmental groups sued and demanded an environmental consultation by the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Spangle was the top official in Arizona evaluating development projects and their impact on the environment and endangered species. In October 2016, he wrote a decision about the Villages at Vigneto that “direct and indirect effects to threatened and endangered species… are reasonably certain to occur,” referring to the western yellow-billed cuckoo, the southwestern willow flycatcher and northern Mexican gartersnake.
He ordered that a full scale “biological assessment,” which can take months and bring additional litigation, was needed before the project could move ahead. He also wrote that the Clean Water Act permit issued earlier by the Army Corps “should not have been issued.”
Spangle assumed the project would move ahead with the assessment he ordered, like other projects he had worked on. Then in August 2017, he says, he received an unusual phone call from Peg Romanik, an associate solicitor at the Interior Department.
“[S]he told me that she had gotten a call from a high-level political appointee within the Department of the Interior who informed her that our position out here, in Arizona, was not the position of the administration,” Spangle told CNN.
During that call, Spangle said he was strongly pressured to reverse his decision on Vigneto; his reversal would remove a major hurdle for the project and allow it to move forward without the in-depth biological assessment he asked for.
Romanik met with Bernhardt at 8:30 a.m. the same day that she called Spangle, according to Bernhardt’s calendar, which does not list what was discussed.
The phone call and reversal were first reported by the Arizona Daily Star, but the name of the solicitor and her meeting with Bernhardt have not been previously reported.
Spangle said it was the first time in his career that he was asked to change an official decision he had made, saying it “wasn’t a good feeling, but I felt I had a duty. I work for the administration, I have to do what I’m told, and so I did.”
On October 26, 2017, Spangle issued a new decision, reversing his earlier letter, and allowing the project to move ahead without the full biological assessment. He retired four months later.
Romanik did not return a call requesting comment.
Developer’s contacts with Trump administration
Ingram is a wealthy and powerful figure in Arizona. El Dorado Holdings is one of the largest private landholders in the southwestern US, with assets exceeding $1 billion. Ingram is also one of the owners of the Arizona Diamondbacks, the state’s Major League Baseball team.
CNN has found a trail of contacts between the developer and top government officials, along with political contributions, that raise questions of access and influence.
Ingram co-chaired a “Camouflage and Cufflinks” fundraiser around the time of Trump’s inauguration, which offered a private reception with the President, and a hunting trip with Donald Trump Jr, and Eric Trump in exchange for a $500,000 donation. The event was canceled after ethical questions surfaced over buying access to the President and his sons.
An avid hunter, Ingram is a director of the non-profit Safari Club International Foundation, which Bernhardt formerly represented as an attorney, according to Bernhardt’s financial disclosure statement.
Ingram was also appointed by then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to the International Wildlife Conservation Council, an official federal group set up to advise on issues related to “citizens traveling to foreign nations to engage in hunting,” according to its website.
Several weeks after Spangle received the phone call asking for his reversal, Ingram made a one- time $10,000 donation to the Trump Victory Fund. Since November 2015, Ingram donated $50,900 to political committees supporting Trump. In the same time frame, Ingram donated $6,050 to Democrats.
Since the beginning of the Trump administration, Ingram or his representatives had at least 11 meetings, emails or phone calls with top officials at Interior and EPA, including one meeting with Zinke, two meetings and three emails with then-EPA Secretary Scott Pruitt, and at least five meetings with Bernhardt, who succeeded Zinke as Interior secretary earlier this year.
Ingram declined CNN’s request for an interview, but Davis, El Dorado Holding’s attorney, says his client has done nothing wrong.
“The innuendo is, well, he’s close to Trump, there must’ve been political influence,” Davis said in an interview, adding, “That’s just innuendo. I can’t negate that because it’s a quote ‘feeling.'”
While Davis confirmed to CNN the meetings between Ingram and administration officials, he said there was nothing untoward about them.
Davis points to a recent letter sent by the US and Fish and Wildlife Service to the Army Corps of Engineers, which reiterated that the reversal by Spangle was the correct course of action. The letter also said, “we take the allegations made by Mr. Spangle seriously,” and that a re-evaluation was done at the local level without influence from regional or Washington, DC headquarters.
“[T]he local Fish and Wildlife Service… [said] that the likely impact on endangered species is not sufficient to stop this project,” Davis said, adding that the facts contradict any suggestion that the federal agency was influenced by Ingram. “If you focus on facts, the facts are that the Army Corps of Engineers made a decision on the facts under the law,” Davis added.
The letter, dated June 12, 2019, was given to CNN by Davis just days after CNN requested an interview with Ingram.
CNN sent Interior a detailed list of questions about the Vigneto project asking about the phone call to Spangle, why he was pressured to reverse his decision, why Bernhardt had a secret meeting with Ingram, and whether that led to the pressure on Spangle to reverse his order. CNN also asked to do an interview with Bernhardt. Interior declined to answer those questions.
Environmentalists who oppose the project in Arizona are livid.
“I think it’s the most blatant example most people have seen of how people with power and money, connections and influence, have changed how the system is supposed to work, ” said Tricia Gerrodette, a local resident and activist. “We’re supposed to work under the laws and science. And science was overridden here.”
Gerrodette is on the board of the Tucson Audubon Society, one of six environmental groups which filed a joint lawsuit earlier this year demanding the Army Corps complete a full Environmental Impact Statement, and the Corps once again suspended the permit for the Villages at Vigneto development. The case is still pending.
El Dorado Holdings has argued it does not need a permit to begin construction, and it would be willing to change the footprint of the development to avoid federal waters if needed.
But with Spangle’s reversal and the Fish and Wildlife Service backing that decision it is expected the corps will issue another permit. Environmentalists vow they will fight on in the courts, because they believe the project will destroy the underground aquifer.
“The development will ruin this area. It will drain the aquifer and kill it,” Gerrodette said.