Tag Archives: corrupt

Purdy on Public-Lands Populism

From the closing paragraphs of Jedediah Purdy’s Whose Lands? Which Public?

In its monuments proclamations, the Trump Administration asserts a sweeping power to reclassify fifteen million acres of protected federal land and hundreds of millions of marine acres. The proclamations already issued, which purport to strip more than a million acres of monument status, are redolent of this Administration’s illiberal and procedurally dubious tendencies. They elevate to federal policy the themes and goals of a strand of Western populism that is tainted with outlawry and racism. The proclamations also cater to extractive industries, particularly uranium, oil and gas, and coal, in ways that resonate with the Trump Administration’s relentless mixing of public wealth and private interest–in a phrase, its penchant for corruption….

Corruption is not a novel concern here. For well over a century, the field [of public-lands law] has been shaped by recognition that precipitate and opportunistic privatization is a perennial temptation in a body of law that governs nearly a third of the country’s acreage and a great deal of its natural wealth. The Executive branch’s capacity for rapid, unilateral, and obscure action makes it especially suited to this form of misappropriation. Recognition of these facts is built into public-lands law in the long-standing asymmetric preference for Presidential power to preserve lands over Presidential power to privatize them…. The kind of opportunistic favoritism that the Trump proclamations display is precisely what public-lands law has been structured over centuries to avert. These proclamations are paradigms of why unilateral Presidential reclassification toward privatizing natural resources would be anomalous in public-lands law. A Court would properly consider the anomaly in deciding whether the power to create national monuments should imply the power to unmake them.

In the case of the Trump proclamations, the question of opportunism and favoritism in reclassification decisions interacts with the influence of racially inflected nationalism and localist outlawry on the Administration’s priorities. Here too, as with corruption, these themes are not novel or alien to public-lands law. Extractivism, settler-colonialism, and the priority of property-style resource claims and local control are, in key ways, continuations of the themes that governed the first hundred years of public-lands law. Their constituencies have never left the field. It is partly because of these constituencies’ persistent opposition to preservation agendas that public-lands law has always been inflected by disputes over national identity, from the utilitarian nationalism of Gifford Pinchot and Theodore Roosevelt’s national forests to the national parks’ much-advertised status as the American answer to Europe’s cathedrals to the claim that wilderness preservation would keep the country from becoming a “cage.”

Here too, public-lands law has been shaped by grappling with the themes that the Trump proclamations raise. And here too its shape contains a good part of an answer. The public-lands populists’ claims on behalf of privatizing and extractive policies already have a specific legal expression that is deeply embedded in public-lands law: in long-standing public rights-of-way across the federal lands of the West, in mining and mineral-leasing regimes, in grazing rights, and in the default policy of extensive public recreational access — and, above all, in the private real estate that was substantially created under federal privatization schemes. In other words, these claims do not come from outside public-lands law. They are part of it, and they occupy a specific place in its structure. Where they have been vested, they tend to persist within new regimes that otherwise emphasize preservation over extraction and economic use. On multiple-use lands, they play a prominent part in the statutorily mandated planning process. Where, however, they are not vested but take the form of inchoate expectations of continued access, they yield on categorically protected lands: new privatizing and extractive claims are almost uniformly excluded under preservation regimes. For such claims to get traction again, the lands themselves must be reclassified. That reclassification is generally reserved to Congress. If the Antiquities Act authorizes the President to hand a victory to public-lands populists by reclassifying hotly contested lands, then it is a dramatic anomaly in public-lands law. It would authorize constant perennial and shifting reopening of precisely the disputes that the field exists to structure and resolve, and through a mechanism that is procedurally orthogonal to the rest of the field.

The Trump proclamations raise a novel question for interpretation of one of the most important public-lands statutes. Like much that this Administration does, however, it is not so much new as it is an effort to reopen questions that many of us had hoped were closed. In this case, they should remain closed.

What Scott Pruitt’s Troubles Tell Us About Corruption in Kalorama

It’s tempting to draw parallels between the situation at 2449 Tracy Place NW, where Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump rent a mansion owned by Chilean mining billionaire Andronico Luksic Craig, and Scott Pruitt’s sweetheart deal to rent a bedroom in a Washington DC condo owned by the wife of powerful lobbyist Steven Hart, chairman of Williams & Jensen, for fifty dollars a night. But that will not get us very far, and it’s best not to conflate the two cases.

To begin with, Jared and Ivanka are reportedly paying market rate for their place: $15,000 / month. While no one, to my knowledge, has seen records of those monthly payments in the form of cancelled checks or electronic transfer receipts, it seems pretty safe to assume that rent is actually being collected. Doesn’t it? The corporation that owns the property, Tracy DC Real Estate, Inc., was formed by Luksic’s lawyers at Duane Morris LLP in Boston, and the deal was put together by one of the Washington DC’s “top-producing” real estate agents: Cynthia Howar, who is herself a member of the bar. The lawyers, one would like to think, took care of the details.

Not so in Scott Pruitt’s case. Despite the friendly terms, Pruitt fell behind on his rental payments, according to Politico, “forcing his lobbyist landlord to pester him for payment.” Pruitt’s landlord, Vicki Hart, did not have the appropriate business license to rent out a room in her Washington, DC condo, and now faces fines of up to $2000.

In Kalorama, Tracy DC Real Estate, Inc. had obtained the business license for a one family rental from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs in the District of Columbia by March of 2017. That license is good for two years, until February 28, 2019. Who can say where the first family tenants will be by then?

Of course, there is one important parallel to draw between the Pruitt case and the situation at Tracy Place. It doesn’t have to do with licenses or rental agreements or payments. It has to do with ethics — or an apparent lack of concern with ethics.

Scott Pruitt rushed an ethics review of his bedroom rental only after news stories about the deal started to appear. The review was botched, or its conclusions were forced; it’s unclear which. The EPA’s top ethics official now says he needs to revisit the matter, because he was not in full possession of the facts when he retroactively approved the arrangement. This only serves to highlight that the right time for Scott Pruitt to ask whether the rental was permissible or appropriate was before entering into it.

Much the same could be said of Jared and Ivanka’s rental of the Kalorama mansion: the lawyers may have left nothing undone, but there is still the question whether this rental agreement ought to have been struck in the first place, given the fact that the mansion’s owner — or the mining conglomerate his family controls — was suing the U.S. government over the renewal of mining leases.

Twin Metals Minnesota had already sued the United States government back in September of 2016 over lack of action on the Superior National Forest leases. When the Obama administration did act in December of 2016, denying renewal of the leases, and launching a study of a 20-year ban on sulfide mining near the Boundary Waters, it was clear Twin Metals would sue again.

This second suit was filed by Antofagasta’s subsidiaries, Twin Metals Minnesota and Franconia Minerals, on February 21, 2017, just about a week before Tracy DC Real Estate obtained its license to rent the Kalorama mansion as a one family unit. A review of the rental agreement should obviously have been undertaken by the Office of the White House Counsel, with these and other facts in view, if only to preempt scandal-mongering and dispel any appearance of impropriety.

One of the earliest reports of the rental agreement in the Wall Street Journal quotes Rob Walker, a lawyer in private practice who specializes in election law and government ethics, to the effect that “there might not be an ethics problem” as long as the mansion is being rented at fair market value. Maybe not. But I’ve been unable to find any indication that a formal ethics review of the Kalorama rental agreement was ever requested or conducted.

Is Corruption at Interior Putting the Boundary Waters At Risk?


On the afternoon of Friday, December 22nd, with Congress in recess and most Americans already starting their holiday celebrations, the Department of the Interior issued a 19-page legal memorandum reversing hard-won, eleventh-hour Obama-era protections for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota. Signed by Interior’s Principal Deputy Solicitor Daniel Jorjani, Memo M-37049 allows Twin Metals, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Chilean conglomerate Antofagasta Plc, to renew its leases of Superior National Forest lands where it proposes to mine copper, nickel, and other minerals for the next 100 years.

Even one year of mining would scar the land, destroy wetlands, wreck the forest and fill it with industrial noise, and pollute the water. And this kind of mining — sulfide mining — always risks major environmental catastrophe, long after a mine is closed and the land reclaimed. After a brief reprieve, the Twin Metals project is again threatening this unique public wilderness area, along with the thriving tourist and outdoor economy that has grown up around it.

The reversal was immediately met with allegations of corrupt dealing. In a statement calling the move by Interior “shameful,” Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton cried foul.

A December 22nd headline in the Wall Street Journal offered what appeared to be a straightforward explanation: cronyism. “Trump Administration to Grant Mining Leases That Will Benefit Landlord of President’s Daughter Ivanka Trump.” But Chilean billionaire Andronico Luksic Craig, whose family controls Antofagasta Plc, and who only after Trump’s election purchased the Washington, D.C. mansion Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner rent for $15,000 a month, claims never to have met his tenants, and says he met Donald Trump only once, at a New England Patriots game.

It’s unclear whether Luksic Craig’s denials can be taken at face value and whether they are enough to dispel the notion that the reversal was made directly to benefit Antofagasta or the Luksic family. What prompted the action? Who directed it? Who contributed to the memo, and who reviewed it? What conversations did Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Deputy Solicitor Jorjani, and other administrators have about the reversal, and with whom?

The public deserves clear answers to these questions, and last week, I submitted a FOIA request to the Solicitor’s Office at the Department of the Interior, to see if I might gain some insight into the process behind Memo M-37049. At the same time, it’s worth noting that these are not the only questions worth asking. Luksic Craig and his Washington, DC mansion may make good headlines, tabloid fodder, and Twitter snark, and there is no ignoring the whiff of impropriety about his real-estate dealings with the president’s daughter and son-in-law, who also happen to be senior White House advisors. But that’s not the whole story here. A scandal involving Luksic-Craig and his tenants, or some direct dirty dealing between Antofagasta and Interior, might eventually come to light, but the prospect of such a scandal might also serve to distract us from other, large-scale corruption that continues to put the Boundary Waters — and other public lands and waters — at serious risk.

Put the reversal in context. Consider, for example, the Executive Order, entitled “A Federal Strategy to Ensure Secure and Reliable Supplies of Critical Minerals,” that was issued just two days before the Boundary Waters reversal, and which, like the Interior memo, sets the stage for exploitation of mineral resources on public lands. The EO appeared to be the policy outcome of a U.S. Geological Survey of the country’s critical minerals resources published on December 19th; but Trump’s December 20th order was years, not one day, in the making.

The EO revives Obama-era legislative battles over so-called strategic and critical minerals and declares victory by executive fiat. Back in 2013, pro-mining measures introduced in both the House (HR 761) and the Senate (S 1600) promised to “streamline” the permitting process for multinational companies mining on federal lands, like Superior National Forest. The Obama administration opposed them on the grounds that they would allow mining companies to circumvent environmental review. Proponents of HR 761 called it cutting red tape; the resolution actually tried to shut the public out of the process. It touted jobs, but, as critics pointed out, provided no real strategy for creating them; and it hawked anti-Chinese hysteria of the kind that candidate Trump regularly advanced. (Tellingly, House Republicans rejected a motion that would have barred export to China of strategic and critical minerals produced under the HR 761 permit, in tacit acknowledgment that China drives global demand for copper and nickel.) Coming just two days after this EO, the Boundary Waters reversal looks less like a one-off favor to a Chilean billionaire, and more like a coordinated move in a broader campaign.

This subversion of public process is not just the dirty dealing of a few bad actors. It’s also the consequence of weakened institutions; and institutional sabotage — or what Steve Bannon pretentiously called the deconstruction of the administrative state — is the precursor to large-scale corruption. Scott Pruitt might still be the poster boy for putting the fox in charge of the henhouse, but Ryan Zinke appears to be pursuing a similar brief at Interior. Though his bungling of the offshore drilling announcement made him appear incompetent, he is making big changes to favor big mining. The Secretary has made it one of his agency’s top ten priorities to “ensure access to mineral resources” and committed to minimizing “conservation objectives” that interfere with extractive industrial development. His plan to shrink Bears Ears followed a map drawn by a uranium mining company. At Grand Staircase-Escalante and Gold Butte National Monuments, Zinke has virtually surrendered vast swaths of public lands to extractive industry.

The Boundary Waters reversal, too, looks like the work of institutional saboteurs. It settles a lawsuit against the Department of the Interior by conceding that the government should not have discretion over public lands when commercial interests are at stake. Its author, Deputy Solicitor Jorjani, did a brief stint at Interior during George W. Bush’s second term, but it was his high profile job as Executive Director of the Koch Institute that distinguished him as the right man for Ryan Zinke’s Interior. As Polluter Watch, a project of Greenpeace, notes, Jorjani was the Koch Institute’s very first hire, and among the five most highly compensated employees at the Charles Koch Foundation. Now, along with Scott Cameron and Benjamin Keel, Daniel Jorjani works with the team at Interior charged with “reviewing rules their previous employers tried to weaken or kill,” according to reporting by the New York Times and Pro Publica. Similar deregulation teams, “connected to private sector groups that interacted with or were regulated by their current agencies,” were formed at all administrative agencies. The teams put public institutions at the service of powerful patrons, subordinating public protections to private interests.

This capture and sabotage of government agencies compounds and multiplies risk, removing public safeguards and compromising appointed guardians. In the case of the Boundary Waters, the risk of irreversible damage and environmental catastrophe would extend far beyond the mining location, because mining in Superior National Forest would also significantly intensify the cumulative effects of the recent boom in leasing, exploration, and drilling throughout the Lake Superior watershed.

All around the greatest of the Great Lakes, the industrial footprint of sulfide mining operations is expanding rapidly. Just to the southwest of the Boundary Waters, for example, Polymet, a company that has never operated a mine before, proposes building an open pit copper and nickel mine that will require water treatment and tailings dam maintenance “in perpetuity” — that means forever. Meanwhile, Scott Pruitt is dismantling federal rules requiring hardrock mining companies to take financial responsibility for cleanup.

State regulatory agencies are poorly equipped to oversee these new projects. They often fail to give the public a meaningful voice in permitting, or obtain the required prior consent from the region’s Indigenous nations. For their part, many state politicians are racing to deregulate, or at least accommodate, the mining companies. Just this past October, Wisconsin republicans repealed the state’s Prove it First law, which required copper, nickel and gold miners to prove that they could operate and close a sulfide mine without producing acid mine drainage. (They never proved it.) In Michigan, where Canadian mining companies are moving aggressively into the Upper Peninsula, State Senator Tom Casperson has just proposed giving mining companies and other representatives of industry “disproportionate clout” in the review of environmental rules.

Obviously this all goes way beyond doling out favors to billionaire friends or cronies at Mar-A-Lago, and it didn’t start when the Trumps came to town. Until it is called out, voted out, and rooted out, corruption at this scale – coordinated, institutionalized, systemic – will make a mockery of rule-making and oversight, and put our public lands, as well as our public life, at risk.

Postscript: This January 10th article by Jimmy Tobias in the Pacific Standard takes a careful look at Daniel Jorjani’s calendar, which was obtained through a records request, and identifies two meetings with representatives of the Twin Metals mining project: a June 14, 2017 meeting with Raya Treiser and Andy Spielman of WilmerHale on behalf of Twin Metals, and a July 25th meeting with Antofagasta Plc. I discuss these meetings in this follow up post.