Leaders on the House National Resources Committee on Wednesday official referred former Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to the U.S. Department of Justice for criminal prosecution.
The criminal referral was sent by the committee's chairman, Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-AZ), and the chairwoman of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA).
In 2017, Bernhardt was the number two official at the Interior Department under then-Secretary Ryan Zinke. The department reversed itself on a 28,000-home development in southern Arizona known as the Villages at Vigneto that was pushed by developer Michael Ingram.
"In their referral, Democrats say 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," the Associated Press reported.
The letter cites $241,600 in contributions to Trump's joint fundraising re-election committee.
Grijalva explained the impact of the department's reversal for those unfamiliar with the Arizona development proposal.
"The Villages at Vigneto may not be a household name for many Americans, but to Arizonans, it’s been a looming threat to our fragile desert ecosystem for years. Allowing the development of 28,000 homes, golf courses, resorts, and other commercial buildings to suck the San Pedro River dry during a time of unprecedented drought is nonsensical on its face and agency staff were right to be concerned. It seems Vigneto’s developer figured backroom deals with top Trump officials would be a more fruitful avenue for getting his way—it’s a shame he wasn’t wrong," Grijalva said in a statement.
Porter also had harsh words.
“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 longstanding 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."