Thu, May 19, 2022 8:03 PM
By BOB CHRISTIE, Associated Press
PHOENIX (AP) — An attorney for an Arizona real estate developer who was referred to the Department of Justice for a criminal investigation along with a former Trump administration Cabinet member by Democrats on a congressional committee demanded Thursday that he be allowed to publicly rebut the allegations against his client.
Lanny Davis, one of the lawyers representing Arizona developer Michael Ingram, said the House Natural Resources Committee improperly accused Ingram and former Interior Secretary David Bernhardt of bribery.
“I'm asking all these members, Republicans and Democrats alike, to allow me a chance to publicly rebut what I and Mr. Ingram believe are false or misleading allegations of criminal conduct,” Davis told reporters. “I would like to appear before the full committee.”
Last week's criminal referral laid out what committee Democrats said appeared to be a series of campaign contributions totaling $241,000 to Trump-associated committees by Ingram and other wealthy Arizona resident he knows.
They said evidence they collected during a three-year committee investigation strongly suggested the payments were made in exchange for Bernhardt pushing an agency he oversaw to withdraw its opposition to a 28,000-home southern Arizona development Ingram controls.
The criminal referral from Democratic Reps. Raul Grijalva of Arizona and Katie Porter of California says Bernhardt pushed for approval of the Villages at Vigneto project despite a federal wildlife official’s finding that it would threaten habitats for imperiled species.
Bernhardt led the Interior from 2019 to 2021. In 2017, he was the No. 2 official at the department when the Fish and Wildlife Service, an Interior Department agency, reversed its opposition to Ingram's project.
He called the criminal referral “a pathetic attempt by career politicians to fabricate news.”
Davis said Ingram cooperated fully with the probe and provided documents, emails and other materials without the panel issuing a subpoena. He said he was “100% transparent and cooperative with the committee staff and with Mr. Grijalva’s requests.”
Davis said he repeatedly asked if Grijalva would be willing to meet with Ingram and never got a response.
Lindsay Gressard, a Natural Resources Committee spokeswoman, said the panel believed it had gathered enough evidence to merit the criminal referral.
"We just felt that we would present the evidence we had and let DOJ take it from there,” Gressard said.
Grijalva said in a statement that he hoped Ingram would cooperate with the Justice Department.
Davis noted that the only wildlife at issue were “two birds and a snake,” but environmentalists also worry that the project near the San Pedro River would imperil the region's dwindling water supplies.
The referral to the Justice Department laid out a series of meetings, administration actions and campaign donations in mid to late 2017 that committee Democrats said showed a disturbing pattern that they labeled an illegal quid pro quo.
Democrats noted that Ingram met with Bernhardt in August 2017, two weeks before a Fish and Wildlife official received the phone call directing him to reverse the decision blocking the project. The meeting was not disclosed in Bernhardt’s public calendar or travel documents.
Two months later, Ingram made a $10,000 donation to the Trump Victory Fund. The permit was approved later that month. At least nine other donors associated with Ingram also donated to the Trump Victory Fund in the days after Ingram’s donation, Democrats said.
Davis said his news conference was not intended to influence any possible Justice Department investigation. Ingram owns development company El Dorado Holdings and is a part-owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks. He's a Trump supporter and has made contributions to Arizona's Republican governor and other state GOP candidates in recent years. Davis said Ingram has hired former U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton to handle that matter.
A Justice Department spokesman said last week that the department will review the referral.
Davis said the criminal referral left out things that may help clear his client and repeatedly said that the correlation between the meetings, the campaign donations and Fish and Wildlife's changed position don't prove anything.
“That's innuendo, that isn't fact,” Davis said.
Associated Press reporter Matthew Daly in Washington contributed.