Tag Archives: revolving door

A New Boundary Waters FOIA Request

On Tuesday of last week, the Washington, DC-based organization American Oversight filed a Freedom of Information Act request regarding the decision to renew Twin Metals Minnesota’s leases in Superior National Forest, on the edge of the Boundary Waters.

This March 5th request is much broader in scope than the FOIA request I made back in January of 2017, which has so far yielded about five-thousand pages in documents, with more still to come. Slowly but surely, a picture is coming into focus. American Oversight’s question about “outside influence” can already be answered with an unequivocal yes:

Nonetheless, this new request promises to deepen our understanding of how Interior went about reversing Obama era protections for the Boundary Waters, at whose direction they did so, and why the matter appears to have been a priority for the incoming administration.

Three things intrigue me about American Oversight’s request.

First, it extends from January 20th, 2017 to the present. My request for documents from the Office of the Solicitor runs only to December of 2017, when the Jorjani decision was released. So the new request will take us up to the present, and include actions taken by Interior and USDA in 2018.

Second, American Oversight has asked for any communications on this matter from Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, from their official White House accounts and from their personal ijkfamily.com email domain, and from anyone using their personal email domain. This will help clarify the role Kushner, Trump, and the Trump White House might have played in the Boundary Waters reversal, and what connections, if any, we can draw between their rental of the Luksic-owned Kalorama mansion and the renewal of Antofagasta’s mineral leases. That may involve a foreign emolument. This aspect of the new request also promises to inform a broader American Oversight investigation into Jared and Ivanka’s roles in the administration.

Third, and perhaps most intriguing of all, American Oversight’s request zeroes in on an April 28, 2017 meeting with Wilmer Hale’s Rob Lehman at the Department of the Interior. I added this meeting to the Twin Metals timeline after discovering it on the calendar of Chief of Staff Scott Hommel (which American Oversight obtained back in June of 2018).

A look at the timeline shows that this was an especially busy period for Interior officials working on — or should I say with? — Twin Metals: on April 27th, in preparation for a meeting between Deputy Secretary James Cason and Antofagasta CEO Ivan Arriagada, Raya Treiser of Wilmer Hale forwards some background materials. Among them, the Waxman letter to Solicitor Hillary Tompkins that Interior would use as a blueprint. The very next day, Lehman comes to meet with Kathleen Benedetto, an 11AM meeting. Who else was in the room? We don’t know. We do know that right after that meeting Benedetto briefed her colleagues at the Office of the Solicitor. The purpose of the Benedetto briefing, according to Associate Solicitor Karen Hawbecker, was “to get some feedback from [Benedetto] on the options we’ve identified for reversing action on the Twin Metals decision.”

So by late April, the course appears already set. The options on the table were all for “reversing”; and as if to seal the deal, one week later, Antofagasta CEO Ivan Arriagada and his entourage arrive at the Department of the Interior for a first meeting. What was discussed on that occasion, and whether any assurances were given to Mr. Arriagada, remains unknown. The actions Interior subsequently took speak for themselves.

A Standing Offer to Steve Kornacki

Last week, Richard Painter tweeted out this clip of an interview he did with NBC’s Steve Kornacki back in April of 2018. At the time, Painter was running against Tina Smith for Al Franken’s senate seat.

Notice what happens just before Kornacki pushes Painter on the credibility of Franken’s accusers — starting around the 1:07 mark here. Painter says that Smith should be “a lot stronger against” Trump on three fronts: first, she should have come out against his trade war; second, she should call for his removal from office, because he is unable to execute his constitutional duties; and

furthermore, we have serious problems in the state of Minnesota where out of state mining interests are coming into our state, large conglomerates, with the support of the Trump administration, seeking to destroy our Boundary Waters and other waterways in the state of Minnesota. Our establishment Democratic, Farm Labor, senators and members of Congress, most of them are not standing up to that. So we need to have — both parties to be fixed; both parties need to be fixed.

Kornacki sums up what he is “hearing”: “I’m hearing trade, I’m hearing impeachment,” and then he rushes headlong into the topic that will dominate the rest of the segment: whether Richard Painter believes Al Franken’s accusers. How is it possible Kornacki didn’t hear the bit about mining interests? It’s all the more remarkable because Painter spent the most time on the mining story, about twice as much time as he did on impeachment, and a lot more time than he did on trade. How could Kornacki simply skip over it? Why no follow up?

The most likely answer is, Kornacki already knew where this interview was heading — back to Al Franken — and the mining story looked like nothing more than a detour. In retrospect, however, it looks as if Kornacki missed a big political story, or several stories, details of which are only now coming to light.

To stick just to the Boundary Waters story for the moment: a foreign mining company and its lobbyists appear to have dictated decisions at the US Department of Interior. As documents obtained through FOIA make clear, these decisions were coordinated at the highest levels of the US government, with USDA, the White House and the State Department all in the loop. And it sure looks as if the fix was in from the very first days of the new administration, with a predetermined outcome guiding the moves federal government officials made behind closed doors, without public input, and with disregard for science, economics, and the law.

I’ve offered to buy Steve Kornacki lunch and walk him through the details of this story. That’s a good faith, standing offer. There is even more at stake here than the just administration of public lands and the protection of waterways. This is also a story about a coordinated effort to sidestep democratic governance and undermine our shared public life. That ought to be of some interest to a national political correspondent for NBC News.

Read other posts about the Boundary Waters Reversal here.

The Architect of the Boundary Waters Reversal

1989 files

“Extrinsic evidence” from the 1980s: one of the files from the Milwaukee District Office of the Bureau of Land Management appended to Waxman’s 2016 letter to Hilary Tompkins.

Principal Deputy Solicitor Daniel Jorjani signed the December 2017 Department of Interior memo that re-opened the door to sulfide mining near the Boundary Waters, but he probably should not be considered the legal architect of the Boundary Waters reversal. That dubious honor appears to belong to Seth P. Waxman. Or at least the key arguments in Jorjani’s memo seem to be largely derived from a letter Waxman wrote on behalf of Twin Metals to Department of Interior Solicitor Hilary Tompkins back in July of 2016.

Waxman’s name may ring a bell. He has had a distinguished legal and political career. Under President Clinton, he served as Solicitor General of the United States. In the last year of the Bush administration, he made oral arguments before the Supreme Court in Boumedienne v. Bush, to uphold habeas corpus rights for Guantanamo detainees. During the Obama years, his name was even floated as a Supreme Court nominee. Waxman is also a partner at WilmerHale, the powerful DC firm that has led both the lobbying and litigation efforts for Antofagasta, Plc in its bid to renew its mineral leases in Superior National Forest.

Waxman sent his 24 page letter to Hilary Tompkins on July 1, 2016. On the same day, he sent a letter to Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell. Those letters are included among Department of Interior documents obtained through FOIA. The letter to Tompkins appears to have been the most widely shared. It was attached to an April 27, 2017 email from Raya B. Treiser of WilmerHale to Cathy Gulac, secretary to James Cason, confirming a May 2nd meeting with Antofagasta CEO Ivan Arriagada at Interior. You can follow it from there as it gets attached to other email exchanges and forwarded around.

HaugrudLawkowski

A handoff from Interior’s Jack Haugrud to a political appointee: Gary Lawkowski, Counselor to the Solicitor. Attached is Seth P. Waxman’s 2016 letter to Solicitor Tompkins.

Waxman’s argument in the letter to Solicitor Tompkins is that Twin Metals has a non-discretionary right to renewal, as dictated by the terms of the leases negotiated by the International Nickel Company and the Bureau of Land Management back in 1966. This is also the conclusion at which Jorjani arrives, and he appears to do so by carefully following Waxman’s lead. Here, I’m going to highlight several places where Waxman’s influence on Jorjani seems undeniable. (To make it easier for others to follow along, I’ve posted the Waxman letter. Jorjani’s memo can be found here.)

To the layman — and I am one, so anything I say here should probably be read in light of that — the very idea of a non-discretionary right to renewal might seem paradoxical, or at least puzzling. Apparently the federal government, and specifically BLM, can “grant” and has twice granted (in 1989 and 2004) the renewal of these mineral leases, but it has no discretion to deny renewal (as long as the company complies with the law). Hobbled, BLM can say yes but not no. Waxman’s argument easily and cleverly explains why this is so. The terms of the 1966 lease, he says, are both “comprehensive” and “unique”, and those unique terms still “govern” (to use the phrase Jorjani prefers) or (in Waxman’s words) “control”:

One of those terms is a right to renew the lease (in fact, to successive renewals). This right is critical to the parties’ overall bargain: The investment required of the lessee under the leases is enormous. But because of recognized operational problems in the area, producing minerals in the short term would have been impossible. The leases thus would serve no rational purpose absent a non-discretionary right to renew; no company would undertake the necessary investment for exploration and development knowing that it could be unilaterally deprived of any ability to recoup that investment. (p. 1)

Of course, it’s possible to think of a rational purpose mineral leases could “thus” serve absent a non-discretionary right to renew. The leases might afford the company an opportunity to explore a mineral resource on public lands within a specified period of time and on certain terms, assess the feasibility of developing the resource, and provide a right to negotiate successive renewals. We can easily imagine circumstances in which the federal government might reserve discretion, and renewal might be contingent on all kinds of things, like changes in environmental conditions, advances in scientific knowledge, evidence of responsible stewardship, or commensurability with other rights. That all sounds perfectly reasonable. There’s no need to insist that a “non-discretionary right” is the only appropriate arrangement, or buy into the view that preserving discretion over renewal confers on government the power to “unilaterally [deprive]” the company of “any ability.”

This is lawyer’s hyperbole, affecting sobriety and marking out an extreme position: the only “rational” course appears to be one that protects the investment of the mining company, from exploration through development. Having entered into a lease agreement with a mining concern, the federal government is now bound to help the company realize a return on its investment. And that would require going way beyond providing incentives. Surrendering all discretion, the government defers entirely to private interests and agrees to relieve the mining company of business risk.

This Extractive Industry First approach is perfectly congruent with Trumpism and its doctrine of Energy Dominance. We see it reflected not just in the Jorjani memo but in some of the changes Ryan Zinke and David Bernhardt brought to the Department of Interior. Perhaps Mr. Waxman is a man ahead of his time — by about a year, it seems. But let’s grant, for the moment, Waxman’s position that this non-discretionary right is indeed the “unique” arrangement the 1966 leases set out, and focus instead on the area where Jorjani’s memo relies most heavily on Waxman: in reaching the conclusion that the 1966 leases “govern.” Here is Jorjani’s brief restatement of Waxman’s argument:

Twin Metals is entitled to a third renewal. First, the renewal terms of the 2004 lease form do not govern. The form is ambiguous, and the intent of the parties to keep operative the terms of the 1966 leases becomes clear once the BLM’s decision files are examined. (p. 8)

Jorjani adds in a footnote (number 38) that Solicitor Tompkins’ memo did not examine this “extrinsic evidence” — 1980s decision files from the BLM’s Milwaukee office, which Waxman attached as exhibits to his letter to Hillary Tomkins — “because of its underlying premise that the 2004 lease forms were unambiguous.” This, too, echoes Waxman, and builds on an argument about ambiguity and how to resolve it that Waxman sets out repeatedly in his 2016 letter to Tompkins: “Because the renewal provision in the 2004 standard forms is ambiguous,” he writes, “extrinsic evidence [namely, the 1989 BLM decision files] must be considered” (pp. 22-3). Jorjani returns to the theme several times: “the meaning of the 2004 leases is ambiguous” (p. 11), but those Milwaukee files from the 1980s clear everything up.

Waxman discusses what should be done in such cases of ambiguity: “Where a provision in a contract is ambiguous, courts resort to extrinsic evidence to resolve the ambiguity by ‘determin[ing] the intent and meaning of the parties” (p. 23). Jorjani is on exactly the same page: “where contract terms are unclear or ambiguous, an examination of extrinsic evidence is appropriate to properly interpret the contract in accordance with the parties’ intent” (p. 10). Waxman maintains that “extrinsic evidence must be considered, and it confirms that the parties’ intent in executing the 2004 forms was to re-confirm that Twin Metals has a non-discretionary right to renew” (p. 3). Jorjani, too, discovers the “intent” of the 1966 parties in the 1989 files:

…the meaning of the 2004 leases is ambiguous. Given this ambiguity, extrinsic evidence beyond the ‘four corners’ of the document may be considered to ascertain the intent of the contracting parties. Examining the decision files of the BLM resolves the ambiguity. The record shows that the BLM renewed the leases in 1989 under the same terms as the 1966 leases, and did so again in 2004. (p. 11)

Though both Jorjani and Waxman seize on the same Milwaukee documents to prove intent, neither entertains the possibility that there might be other extrinsic evidence to consider in this case — to illuminate historical context, help clarify why the Milwaukee office took the actions it did in 1989, or throw into relief the different economic and environmental conditions, or different assumptions about public lands and private industry, that obtain in 1966, 1989, 2004, or for that matter now. This isn’t a historical inquiry, after all: it is, instead, a search for proof of intent that will shore up the mining company’s claim. It’s just a little unsettling to see the vast resources of the Department of Interior being marshaled to that purpose, following the lead of Antofagasta’s counsel.

Let’s go back, once more, to this issue of ambiguity. One of the main reasons why the 2004 leases are ambiguous — and why the 1966 leases control, and why the Milwaukee documents are necessary in the first place — is that the 2004 leases lack what is known as an integration clause. A written contract is “integrated” when the parties consider it to constitute their full and complete agreement. Or, as a Jorjani footnote (49) explains, “Integration clauses, also known as merger clauses, are contract provisions that generally state that the agreement as written constitutes the entire agreement between the parties and supersedes any prior representations.” Jorjani cites Corbin on Contracts for his authority; Waxman, Williston on Contracts: the standard lease forms used in 2004 do not “supersede or annul” the 1966 leases (Waxman, p. 11).

As Waxman states at the outset of his letter, this lack of an integration clause is a point Solicitor Tompkins does not “acknowledge” in her M-Opinion (p. 2). Both Waxman and Jorjanil will go to town on this point.

Waxman:

the Opinion asserts (p.6) that the 2004 standard forms are “complete, integrated documents,” and thus their renewal provision governs the analysis here. In making this assertion, the Opinion does not acknowledge the lack of any integration clause in the 2004 standard forms. (p. 7)

And again:

…the 1966 leases control. The Opinion’s contrary view depends on its assertion (p.6) that the 2004 forms are “integrated” contracts. But they are not; the 2004 forms lack any integration clause (a point the Opinion does not acknowledge), and there is no other basis on which to conclude that the 2004 forms— divorced from the 1966 leases that the parties attached—were integrated contracts. In light of this, the Opinion’s refusal to consider extrinsic evidence conflicts with established law. (p. 2)

Jorjani picks up on the same phrase (“complete, integrated documents”) in Tompkins’ Opinion, and appears to paraphrase Waxman:

Rather than being “complete, integrated documents,” the leases attach without full explanation the entirety of the 1966 leases and do not include an integration clause that states that the 2004 lease forms are the complete expression of the parties’ agreement. These facts alone warrant an examination of extrinsic evidence to determine the intent of the parties. (p. 10)

Here, in a footnote (number 50), Jorjani cites a 1999 Second Circuit case Waxman uses in his letter (p. 9): Starter Corp. v. Converse, Inc.. “When a contract lacks an express integration clause [courts] must ‘determine whether the parties intended their agreement to be an integrated contract by reading the writing in light of the surrounding circumstances.” That’s Waxman. Jorjani cites the exact same sentence, using brackets, as Waxman does, to substitute “courts” for “district court” in the original text, and putting the word “must” in italics for emphasis.

jorjaninote50

That two knowledgeable lawyers are appealing to the same legal precedents might not be all that surprising. But it seems pretty clear that this citation, too, is part of a disconcerting pattern.

None of this goes directly to the question of legal merits, or which reading of the Twin Metals leases should or eventually will prevail. Yet something here is seriously amiss. The blueprint followed by the Principal Deputy Solicitor at the Department of Interior to reverse protections for the Boundary Waters appears to have first been drawn by the attorney for a Chilean mining conglomerate. That should raise some questions about ethical conduct, about revolving door access and undue influence, and about whether the opinion Jorjani released in December of 2017 should be allowed to stand.

You can read other posts on the Boundary Waters Reversal here.

A Second Boundary Waters Reversal, And Its Connection to the First

Last week, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced that the USDA would cut short a Forest Service environmental study of the risks posed by sulfide mining in Superior National Forest, near the Boundary Waters in northern Minnesota. The study, which was launched only at the very end of 2016, “did not reveal new scientific information,” Perdue asserted. Those familiar with Perdue’s efforts to slash funding for research at USDA will not be surprised that the Secretary appeared, on this occasion, to demonstrate little regard for science and the time it takes to do good science.

Perdue offered vague reassurances that we can “protect the integrity of the watershed and contribute to economic growth and stronger communities.” After all, the statement goes on to say, northern Minnesota “has been mined for decades and is known as the ‘Iron Range’ due to its numerous iron mines.” That’s certainly true, and it will probably play to the pride people on the Iron Range take in their heritage; but Perdue never once mentions the kind of mining that is now under consideration — copper and nickel mining, or sulfide mining — and the enormous risks sulfide mining always presents. In fact, his statement does everything possible to sidestep the issue and conflate iron and non-ferrous mining.

The announcement was misleading, and it was all but lost amid the very loud noise created by the Anonymous Op Ed that had come out in the New York Times the day before. It is, however, consequential. Dan Kraker of Minnesota Public Radio rightly characterized Perdue’s announcement as “the Trump administration’s second major reversal of decisions made on mining in the Superior National Forest” — the first being the December 2017 legal memorandum on the renewal of Antofagasta’s mineral leases in Superior National Forest discussed in previous posts.

The two reversals are obviously connected and coordinated. Exactly how might be a little harder to say. We can start to trace their connection as early as 22 August 2017, when Department of Interior Principal Deputy Solicitor Daniel Jorjani holds a meeting with two White House officials. The topic: “Minnesota Project.” Here is the calendar entry for that meeting, which I’ve now added to the Twin Metals timeline:

MinnesotaProject

The apparent purpose of this meeting was to bring the White House, specifically the Office of the General Counsel and the Executive Office of the President, into the loop, or to provide the White House with an update on efforts to reverse this policy of the Obama administration.

The meeting included Michael J. Catanzaro, who was at the time Special Assistant to the President for Domestic Energy and Environmental Policy. He is profiled on DeSmog. His lobbying for oil and gas companies and his work with Senator Jim “Snowball” Inhofe and climate change denial campaigns are detailed there. Catanzaro stepped through DC’s revolving door and returned to his lobbying firm (CGCN Group) in April of this year.

The other White House official in that meeting was Stephen Vaden, who in August of 2017 was serving as Principal Deputy General Counsel at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Vaden had also been a member of the Trump “beachhead team” at USDA. These teams were sent in to sabotage regulatory agencies and, as Steve Bannon put it, deconstruct the administrative state.

One month after this meeting, in September of 2017, Vaden would be officially nominated to become General Counsel at USDA. Legal staff at USDA did not exactly greet the nomination with enthusiasm. According to Politico, morale “plummeted.” There were concerns about Vaden’s lack of managerial experience, his hostility to unions, and his previous work for the Judicial Education Project on behalf of discriminatory Voter ID laws — which turned out to be the main focus of his 2017 nomination hearing. Vaden is still awaiting full confirmation in the Senate, but he is busy working at USDA and would no doubt have briefed Secretary Perdue on this matter.

So the meeting where these two Boundary Waters reversals connect comes a little more clearly into focus: Jorjani, with his strong ties to the Koch Institute, Catanzaro, an energy lobbyist hostile to science, and Vaden, with sketchy views on labor unions and voting rights, talking about a Chilean conglomerate’s mining leases in Superior National Forest.

Another Note on the Boundary Waters Reversal

Jorjani Calendar

A 25 July 2017 entry from Daniel Jorjani’s calendar shows a meeting with Antofagasta Plc on the Twin Metals project.

One point I hoped to get across in Monday’s post about the Boundary Waters reversal has to do with journalism, or, more broadly, with storytelling. Just to highlight: scandal-mongering that generates clicks doesn’t necessarily get at the more prosaic and more complex truth of the story, and may end up doing a disservice. In the case of the Boundary Waters reversal, it is tempting to focus on the story of Chilean billionaire Andronico Luksic Craig and his Washington, D.C. tenants, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner. Was Luksic Craig’s purchase of the mansion where Jared and Ivanka now live an opening bid? Was the reversal connected to the rental?

This story of the rich and famous still merits investigating, but it carries with it a whole set of ideas — exaggerated and somewhat cartoonish ideas — of what corruption looks like: foreign billionaires, mansions, nepotism, winks and nods (remember what Luksic Craig said about meeting Trump at the Patriots’ game: “lo saludé.” “I said ‘hi’”).  All of those elements are certainly in play here, and they are part of what makes this administration appear so unabashedly corrupt and downright villainous.

At the same time, the story of Luksic Craig and his D.C. tenants could turn out to be a red herring, or what nowadays people call a nothingburger or fake news. Besides, there’s another, more immediately credible story that’s just there for the telling. What it lacks in tabloid glamour it makes up for with evidence. It unfolds among the banalities of meeting rooms, conference calls, memos, and after work events. This is the story Jimmy Tobias pursues in an excellent piece in the Pacific Standard, which I had not read before writing my post (and which, after reading, I linked to in a postscript).

Tobias beat me to the punch on the FOIA request, and obtained Principal Deputy Solicitor Daniel Jorjani’s calendar from May through December of 2017. He identifies two meetings about the Twin Metals project. The first is on June 14, 2017, with Raya Treiser and Andy Spielman of WilmerHale, the law and lobbying firm, on behalf of Antofagasta Plc.

Spielman is the Chair of WilmerHale’s Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Practice, and his name appears on the calendar heading, so we know that this is a high priority matter for the lobbying firm and presumably for the Department of Interior. And Treiser comes directly from the Department of the Interior, where she served under President Obama. She helped to “streamline” permitting on large infrastructure projects, and worked on the reform of offshore drilling regulations and energy development in Alaska. Now, as her biography on the WilmerHale site informs us, she has “successfully leveraged her substantive knowledge and insight into government processes.”

The second meeting is directly with Antofagasta Plc: the Chilean mining company comes to the Department of Interior to discuss its Minnesota claim, and it appears the Department rolls out the red carpet. WilmerHale had done its work. In addition to Principal Deputy Solicitor Jorjani, thirteen administration officials are in attendance, representing the highest reaches of the Department of Interior, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Environmental and Natural Resources Division of the Department of Justice. As Tobias notes, no conservation groups were invited to discuss the reversal with the Department of Interior. This was a conversation for insiders only.

At the center of this story is not a mansion, but a revolving door (and if you are not familiar with Bill Moyers’ short video essay on the subject, you should be). This feature of the story becomes even more apparent when we look at a couple of other meetings on Deputy Solicitor Jorjani’s calendar that Tobias didn’t flag but are connected with the Boundary Waters reversal. One is a Friday, May 26 call with Rachel Jacobson of WilmerHale, regarding a “DC Bar Event”; this call or this event might well have provided an opportunity to tee up the Twin Metals issue. It is the first contact WilmerHale makes with Principal Deputy Solicitor Jorjani— and who should they choose for that task but Jacobson, who held Jorjani’s job of Principal Deputy Solicitor under the Obama administration.

Then on Thursday, September 7th, when work on the reversal memo is presumably well underway, there is an internal meeting on Twin Metals: Jorjani with Jack Haugrud, who was Acting Secretary of the Interior until Zinke’s appointment, and Joshua Campbell, an Advisor to the Office of the Solicitor. Campbell is profiled here, on Western Values Project “Department of Influence” site, documenting the revolving door between special interests and the Department of Interior.

In these meetings, the public interest does not even come into play.

Postscript: Today, as I was writing this post, the Washington Post reported that the Forest Service will cancel a planned environmental impact study and instead conduct an abbreviated review of the Obama-era proposal to withdraw the Superior National Forest lands near the Boundary Waters from minerals exploration for up to 20 years. The story also appears in the Star Tribune. Things are moving fast now, and pressure is mounting.