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.

Asked by Wisconsin senator Russ Feingold if he thought Comer had misled him, Myers responded, "I believe there was additional information about the course of the negotiations that should have been brought to my attention by Mr. Comer."

The performance neatly omitted any mention of the information that Comer did bring to his attention. Documents not released with the public version of the IG's report include an acknowledgment by Myers that he "was periodically briefed by Comer on the progress" of the settlement. According to Budd-Falen, Myers was notified when the RICO case was dropped out of the agreement. He also was the one of the recipients of a "briefing paper" Comer wrote, explaining his actions after the DOI started to get heat over the settlement in the summer of 2003. Shown a copy of that document by the IG investigator, Myers said he couldn't recall having ever received it.

Myers's claims of being several steps removed from the Robbins mess haven't persuaded the environmental groups keen on blocking his appointment to the bench. "What we know from his testimony is that he hired Comer, that he specifically authorized Comer to negotiate this deal, and that this is the only settlement of its kind that he ever authorized an associate solicitor to negotiate," says Doug Kendall of the Washington-based Community Rights Counsel. "Why get a senior political appointee involved in a settlement between a single rancher and a local BLM office?"

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.

Myers's defenders argue, not implausibly, that he was far too distracted by a massive lawsuit against the DOI over its handling of Indian trust accounts to be concerned about Robbins. One could also make a case that Comer, caught between an intransigent rancher and zealous field officers, tried to cut a pragmatic (if lopsided) deal that would get Robbins -- whose lawsuits required an ongoing response that amounted to full-time work by two staffers in the regional office -- off the department's back. But that isn't the way the Inspector General saw it.

"The conduct in this report cries out for administrative action," states the IG's findings, yet no such action has been forthcoming. The only administrative move Comer has endured is his transformation from political appointee in Washington to regional solicitor in Colorado -- a process known in federal circles as "burrowing in," since a civil-service post offers greater job security than a tenuous appointee position.

"We were all amazed that he was able to burrow in," says one of Comer's former colleagues. "What he did would never fly in private practice. If you represent the wife in a divorce and you do everything in the case to favor the husband, she could bring a malpractice case against you."

Seven years after it began, Frank Robbins's lawsuit against the BLM employees who tasked him is still limping through the courts, a source of great frustration to both sides. Some of the employees are approaching retirement, and at least one has died since it all started.

"It's incredible that people trying to do their job have been treated this way," says Jon Marvel. "Letting that RICO suit continue is a black, black mark on the government."

But an attorney for the Department of the Interior has many different kinds of clients. The agencies. Senior officials. Their employees. The land, wildlife, minerals and other resources. And, of course, the public.

It just happens that, in the Norton era, some of the clients are a lot more important than others.

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