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.

Environmental groups have speculated that the "juice" for this unusual assembly came from the Robbins family's ties to powerful Alabama politicians, including Senator Richard Shelby. But Robbins says the meeting was arranged by Conrad Lass, the BLM's chief of staff. "Con Lass was a Wyoming boy," Robbins says, "and we put the pressure on him to get us a meeting up there."

The IG's report supports Robbins's account. Lass told investigators that the meeting was attended by a friend of Robbins's father whom Lass knew from his days as a lobbyist in Alabama; the friend now runs a political consulting business in Washington. Lass added that he "decided to distance myself from any significant involvement" in the dispute, since he was a native of Worland and his family was active in politics there. But the BLM's chief of staff continued to be party to some discussions about the Robbins matter several months after the February meeting.

The BLM's initial response to Robbins's complaints was to conduct an internal review, which concluded that the Worland office had not exceeded its authority in its dealings with him. The review even recommended the possibility of taking criminal action against the rancher "based on documented violations." But in a meeting with BLM director Kathleen Clarke and Robert Comer, one member of the review team said that he didn't think the Worland office was "acting as objectively or neutrally as they should be" in dealing with Robbins. (Robbins regards the admission as tantamount to a confession of mistreatment.) According to the team member, Clarke then turned to Comer and asked him to work out a settlement that would resolve the dispute.

 
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 IG's report heaps much of the blame for what happened next on Comer. The deal that took shape, through months of negotiations between Comer and Robbins's attorney, suspended enforcement actions against the rancher for his numerous alleged grazing violations; set up an "informal dispute resolution" process that removed enforcement authority from the local office, so that only BLM director Clarke or her designee could authorize new actions against Robbins; required the BLM to grant to Robbins a right-of-way on the contested road without requiring a reciprocal easement; and even raised the possibility of a land swap with the feds that would add to Robbins's holdings in the area.

The report suggests that various officials who should have had more input on the settlement either didn't learn of its terms until after the fact, or raised objections that were largely disregarded by Comer. For example, Tom Roberts, then an assistant U.S. attorney in Cheyenne, protested that the agreement treated Robbins differently from every other BLM permit-holder in the state, making it harder to cite Robbins for future violations and giving him an unusual degree of control over the government's right to access public lands. Roberts says he received a short, "antagonistic, unpleasant, in-my-face" phone call from Comer, letting him know that his objections weren't well received.

But the biggest sticking point was the RICO suit that Robbins had filed, suing eight BLM employees individually for their actions. Roberts insisted that the suit, which sought potential damages as high as $12 million, should be dismissed with prejudice as part of any deal with the rancher. The IG report claims that Comer not only failed to get the RICO suit withdrawn but failed to inform his superiors of Roberts' objections; yet drafts of the agreement show that Comer did propose various ways of addressing the RICO problem, short of the dismissal Roberts wanted -- and that several BLM officials were briefed on those efforts.

In the end, the U.S. Attorney's Office did not sign off on the deal, which was finalized in early 2003 and approved by BLM deputy director Fran Cherry. News of the settlement leaked out the following summer, prompting a request for an investigation by PEER and a lawsuit from the Western Watersheds Project, arguing that the agreement was illegal. Both organizations blasted the DOI for its "sweetheart deal" with Robbins.

"These things don't happen out of the blue," says the WWP's Marvel. "They happen because, it's clear, people in Washington pushed aside the local administrators to get Frank Robbins off the hook."

Robbins's contention that the BLM's own misconduct had prompted the conciliatory agreement doesn't pass the laugh test, adds Jeff Ruch. "The range staff in Wyoming BLM is the furthest thing you can get from anti-cattle," he says. "People in other BLM offices are threatened with transfers to Wyoming to get an attitude adjustment. For this staff to bust their pick in a case, this must be a completely extreme situation."

Robbins denies that he received preferential treatment. "That's just hogwash," he says. "They've been beating me over the head with a stick and kicking me in the ass for years. How I get preferential treatment after eight years of hell, I don't know. It's ridiculous."

Robbins's Cheyenne attorney, Karen Budd-Falen, was so incensed by the IG report's "politically motivated" account of events that she issued her own ten-page rebuttal. "I have done lots of settlements with the BLM with these kind of provisions," says Budd-Falen, who, like Secretary Norton, once worked for the Mountain States Legal Foundation. "What the government got out of it was not having to spend zillions of dollars and huge amounts of time to litigate a whole bunch of cases."

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