Grazin' Hell

Bush put former industry lobbyists in charge of public lands. Now a deal with a Wyoming rancher has the stewards running for cover.

Taking the oath of office can be a solemn moment in the life of a public servant. For William G. Myers III, a longtime lobbyist for grazing and mining interests, the occasion was an excuse for a corporate bash.

On October 4, 2001, Myers attended a reception in his honor at the swank Hay-Adams Hotel in Washington, D.C., hosted by his former colleagues at the law firm of Holland & Hart. Vice President Dick Cheney showed up long enough to swear in Myers as Solicitor for the Department of the Interior -- the top lawyer in the entire agency, charged with the legal safeguarding of the federal government's vast array of parks, wilderness, rangeland and other natural resources. The total acreage under DOI control accounts for one-fifth of all the land in the United States.

The next morning, Myers met with several Holland & Hart partners at DOI headquarters. The purpose of the meeting wasn't to discuss legal business -- Myers had formally recused himself from any matters affecting his former clients, such as Peabody Coal and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, for one year -- but to show off his righteous new digs. Myers took the attorneys on a tour of his office and a conference room where the photos of previous DOI solicitors are displayed, then announced that the group had time to visit the office of his boss, Gale Norton, before she arrived at work.

 
Jay Bevenour
 
Move 'em on, head 'em up: Former DOI solicitor 
William G. Myers III, seeking a federal judgeship, 
fields questions about the "sweetheart deal" struck by 
aide Robert Comer.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Move 'em on, head 'em up: Former DOI solicitor William G. Myers III, seeking a federal judgeship, fields questions about the "sweetheart deal" struck by aide Robert Comer.

The office of the Secretary of the Interior is one of the grandest in federal government, a cavernous room paneled in oak and blazing with brass and chandeliers. Myers's buddies were free to test the sofas and check out the view from the balcony. They were, one recalled later, "appropriately awed." But the solicitor soon glanced at his watch and suggested it was time to go.

At that moment, Secretary Norton opened the door, nearly leveling one of the senior partners in the process. After some awkward introductions, the group beat a hasty retreat down the hall.

Myers's critics love to tell the story of that embarrassing encounter; the image of high-priced industry lawyers making themselves at home in Norton's office is emblematic, they say, of the corporate takeover of the DOI that began shortly after George W. Bush was elected. But it's also indicative of the bumpy ride that Myers had as solicitor. His brazenly pro-industry approach angered environmentalists and Native American groups, and his office -- which oversees 315 attorneys around the country -- was frequently embroiled in ethics probes.

Myers left the government in 2003, returning to the cozy embrace of Holland & Hart's office in Boise. Last year he was one of ten Bush candidates for federal judgeships whose nominations were blocked by filibustering Senate Democrats. After Bush's re-election, the administration promptly resubmitted Myers and several other nominees for consideration. Despite strenuous objections from ranking Judiciary Committee liberals -- Vermont's Patrick Leahy calls Myers "the most anti-environment nominee sent to the Senate in my time here" -- this month Myers will be the first of the contentious candidates to be debated on the Senate floor.

Opponents insist that Myers's biases are far too extreme to warrant a lifetime seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, a region that encompasses millions of acres of public lands stretching from Hawaii to Montana. They've found plenty of ammunition in his past legal work and writings, such as his comparison of federal land management to the "tyranny" of King George, his denunciations of the Endangered Species Act, and his derisive references to environmental activists "mountain-biking to the courthouse...bent on stopping human activity wherever it may promote health, safety and welfare."

But some of the toughest questions Myers has faced in recent weeks focus on a deal that went down in the DOI solicitor's office during his watch there. In an effort to resolve years of court battles between a Wyoming rancher and the Bureau of Land Management, attorneys working under Myers agreed to a bizarre settlement that heavily favored the rancher at the expense of their "client," the BLM. Essentially, the deal forgave numerous alleged trespasses and grazing violations by the rancher, Frank Robbins; deprived the local BLM office of the ability to enforce the law in the event of further problems with Robbins; and allowed Robbins to continue to press a costly and punitive lawsuit against individual BLM employees, accusing them of racketeering and extortion.

Questioned by investigators from the DOI's Office of Inspector General about the settlement, Myers claimed that he was unaware of key details until after the deal was done. The IG's report -- completed last fall, but not publicly released until four months later -- is much more critical of the actions of Robert Comer, a political appointee who worked directly under Myers and is now the Rocky Mountain regional solicitor for the DOI, based in Lakewood. According to the report, Comer used "pressure and intimidation" to try to get the settlement done his way; misled or failed to inform senior officials about problems with the deal; and ramrodded it through "with total disregard for the concerns voiced by career field personnel."

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