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.