Harry

Flaps

Finally, After Key Congressman Complains
BLM Bureaucracy Gives Up Scheme
To Keep Land-Swap Values Secret

[Reprinted from the February 2, 1997 issue of Electric Nevada]

  Bureau of Land Management officials in Nevada have backed down on a scheme to keep the public in the dark until the agency had transferred millions of dollars worth of prime Clark County real estate to politically-favored mega-developers.
  Acknowledging they had been violating the federal agency's own regulations, BLM officials announced last week they would reopen comment periods on two major Nevada land swap proposals.
Before reversing field, BLM State Director Ann J. Morgan had defended the agency's intention to keep appraised values of the exchanged lands secret until public comment and protest periods had expired.
"Disclosure of such material could confuse the public ... and have a detrimental effect on our decisionmaking process," Morgan had argued in a December 24 letter. That date was already five days past the last day of the two comment periods. During the both periods, the BLM had rebuffed citizen inquiries about the appraisals, calling them "confidential."
One proposal, in its first phase, would give Del Webb Corporation 2,500 acres of public land in southeastern Las Vegas Valley, in exchange for a motley collection of private lands -- purchased by the company elsewhere in the state -- of supposed environmental interest to the federal government. In the next phase of Del Webb's over-all proposal, another 2500


acres of BLM land would be similarly traded to the developer.
The second proposal -- jointly made by the "non-profit" American Land Conservancy and PermaBilt Homes -- would deed to them, in total, some 6000 acres of choice real estate on Las Vegas' southeastern border. Compensation again would be private lands, elsewhere in the state, desired by the federal government and purchased by the ALC-PermaBilt partnership.
As exclusively reported by Electric Nevada three weeks ago, BLM officials in Nevada have been under heavy pressure from Senator Harry Reid to smooth the path for Del Webb, which has channeled tens of thousands of dollars into Reid campaign coffers.
In its earlier report, EN quoted a confidential source familiar with some events in the Las Vegas BLM office in late October, 1994. At that time, said the source, Reid, accompanied by Del Webb lawyers Virginia Turner and Don Moon, met with the-then assistant district manager, Gary Ryan, and emphasized how strongly Reid was supporting Del Webb's bid for the 5,000 acres of Clark County land.


 
Now, however, Electric Nevada has obtained a copy of a page from the Bureau of Land Management's own official case file.
According to the file's entry for September 29, 1994, BLM officials had received a "Letter from Del Webb asking the BLM to accept it as an initial exchange proposal. Listed [was] 4975 acres of selected land, valued at approximately $50 million, but no offered land was included in letter."
The next case file entry, for 10/04/94, says "FAX copy, received on 10/14, of letter signed by Nevada Congressional Delegation recommending that Del Webb be given credit, to the extent possible, for its previous investments in any revised application process..."
"10/26/94: Gary Ryan [BLM assistant district manager] met with Senator Reid, Virginia Turner, and Don Moon. Senator Reid strongly expressed his support for a new Del Webb exchange (the Red Rock expansion had passed and the presidents [sic] signature was expected). The Senator was very clear that Del Webb was to be a priority "to be put on the top of the pile and not have to go to the end of the line." He also encouraged me personally to take an interest and assist Dew [sic] Webb in any way possible within the regulations. The State Director and Associate Director



were fully briefed on this meeting."
Later entries on the page mention subsequent meetings between Assistant District Manager Ryan and the Del Webb attorneys, the last of which is dated February 23, 1995.
Pressure from Harry Reid in late 1994 and 1995 was not something to be taken lightly by Nevada BLM officials. At that time, with Louisiana Senator Bennett Johnson having announced his pending retirement, Reid was in line to become the ranking -- and thus, most powerful -- Democrat on the Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which has oversight responsibilities, and thus power, over the BLM.
Perhaps coincidentally, in 1995, Nevada's senior Senator suddenly received unusually generous campaign contributions from Del Webb Corporation.
Even though Reid would not be up for re-election until 1998, the Arizona land developer that year -- according to Electric Nevada's search of Federal Election Commission records -- gave Reid a total of at least $54,000, of which $40,000 came directly from the company PAC. It was a sum that far exceeded what the company had given Reid in even 1992, when he was actually running for re-election. In that year, the company PAC


 
contributed $22,000 to the Reid campaign.
Reid is not the only significant political figure having an apparent conflict of interest in the proposed land swaps. U.S. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, whose cabinet department includes the Bureau of Land Management, was -- shortly before taking office -- on the payroll of Del Webb and specifically representing the company in its pursuit of Las Vegas Valley real estate.
According to the BLM land-swap case file page obtained by Electric Nevada, Babbitt, as consultant to Del Webb, met with the BLM's Ryan on November 16, 1992, shortly after the 1992 election.
Babbitt also has ties to the American Land Conservancy, having served as a founding board member of the organization. And both of Nevada's U.S. Senators have, in the past, introduced federal legislation to smooth the path for several ALC-arranged land swaps.
According to Charles E. Hancock, former BLM appraisal chief for the state of Nevada, the American Land Conservancy chronically arranges "sweetheart deals for everyone but the



taxpayers." Hancock, who continues to monitor what he sees as deteriorating federal land-swap practices in the state, had actively sought, late last year, to inspect the land appraisals for the Del Webb and ALC-PermaBilt Homes land swaps. See EN's earlier, January 12, report.
But he -- like Las Vegas environmental activists concerned about air pollution and other quality-of-life degradation they expect in the wake of more Las Vegas growth -- got a stiff-arm from Bureau officers.
According to a report Saturday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Las Vegas BLM office realty specialists Cheryl Frassa and Sharon DiPinto said agency staff from the Las Vegas district office, the Reno state headquarters and Washington headquarters discussed the protests and arrived at a decision in late December to reopen the comment period on the swaps.
"We felt it was a valid issue, the fact the public did not have opportunity to access (land) value information. That's why we revisited the issue," said Frassa on Friday.
But other evidence indicates that


 
even well into the first week in January, BLM state headquarters in Reno was still fighting public access to the appraisals.
A formal letter from BLM state director Morgan to Hancock -- justifying refusal of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request on grounds secrecy was needed in order to not "confuse the public" -- is dated December 24, 1996.
Because the letter cited a legal opinion provided by the agency's assistant regional solicitor in Sacramento, Hancock on January 6 submitted a FOIA request for the written text of the solicitor's opinion. It was several days later that he was informed that the solicitor had provided no formal opinion, but only had participated in a telephone conversation.
Frassa also said "The BLM handbook was inconsistent with the regulation and that's why we changed our approach."
At least during the last two years, district office personnel told the Review-Journal, the practice has been to not make land values public until when the patent was issued and after the comment period had expired.
But, in Reno, Hancock, the agency's former chief state appraiser, called that practice "mal-administration."



"The protest periods for these exchanges expired nearly one month ago," wrote Hancock January 6, in a FOIA appeal sent to the U.S. Department of Interior in Washington. "All appraisal reports should have been completed, approved, and available for public review at the time the Notices of Decisions were issued.
"BLM's current practice of not approving appraisals until a day or two before patent is issued," he wrote, "is mal-administration."
Beside Hancock's FOIA appeal, a second factor might have led Nevada BLM officials to abandon their attempt to keep the appraisals secret until Las Vegas developers had received the patents.
The Review-Journal reports a mid-December intervention in the case by Rep. James Hansen, R-Utah, chairman of the House subcommittee on public lands. On Dec. 12, Hansen wrote the BLM's then-acting-head Michael Dombeck, complaining that land appraisals for the swaps were not going to be finished and available to the public before the end of the comment periods.


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