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Congress investigating how D-backs co-owner got permit for project

A congressional committee is investigating whether a Republican donor who co-owns the Arizona Diamondbacks got help from the Trump administration in obtaining a crucial permit after a wildlife official said a housing project he was developing would threaten imperiled species.

In addition to holding a stake in Phoenix’s baseball team, Mike Ingram is founder and chairman of El Dorado Holdings, the company behind the proposed 28,000-home development in the southern Arizona town of Benson.

In an unrelated deal, El Dorado Holdings is partnering with the real estate company owned by Phoenix sports mogul Jerry Colangelo in developing an ambitious master-planned community in the far West Valley.

U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat who chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources, is leading an investigation into the controversial permit situation.

“Recent reports raise questions about whether a key permit decision at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) was inappropriately reversed,” the committee said in a letter last week to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt.

The committee set a July 29 deadline for the U.S. Department of the Interior to turn over “all documents and communications” on the hotly contested project.

The Interior Department defends the permit as a science-based decision.

Described as a 19-square-mile housing and golf course development that would draw traffic to Benson, the project had been in a holding pattern for more than a decade. It gained traction in 2015 when El Dorado Holdings took over the project and rebranded it Villages at Vigneto.

A coalition of conservation groups challenged the permit in a federal lawsuit in January. Environmentalists argue the project’s need for groundwater will threaten the San Pedro River and surrounding wildlife, including birds like the southwestern willow flycatcher and yellow-billed cuckoo as well as the northern Mexican garter snake.

They are demanding federal officials conduct a more in-depth environmental review.

Steve Spangle, a retired Fish and Wildlife Service field supervisor, told the Arizona Daily Star in April that he had similar concerns in 2016 but was pressured a year later to facilitate the permit anyway.

He has since told several media outlets that he “got rolled” by politics.

“I used that phrase to distinguish it from making a policy call based on fact, as opposed to making a policy call based on politics,” Spangle told the newspaper.

He says an attorney with the Interior Department’s solicitor’s office warned him that a “high-level politico” thought he should change his assessment in favor of the development.

Emails and calendars show that Bernhardt, as deputy Interior secretary, had an unofficial meeting at a lodge in Billings, Montana, with Ingram in August 2017, CNN reported Tuesday.

They discussed Villages at Vigneto, the congressional committee said.

Lanny Davis, attorney for El Dorado Holdings, said Ingram did not lobby for the project. Then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, whom Ingram has known for several years, found out both men would coincidentally be at the same hunting lodge and suggested they meet.

“I believe Mr. Ingram presented a legal memo to Mr. Bernhardt,” Davis told The Associated Press. “It’s exactly the opposite of the innuendo that this was about lobbying and political influence.”

Two months after the meeting, Ingram donated $10,000 to a fundraising arm of the Trump campaign. That donation was later refunded, as was two $2,700 donations.

Davis said Ingram got a refund so he could donate instead to a political action committee that allows contributors to give more money than campaigns do.

“This is very common for (political) fundraisers. I’ve done that many times myself,” Davis said.

In the wake of Spangle’s allegations, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sent a letter to the Fish and Wildlife Service asking if its opinion on the permit had changed. Jeff Humphrey, an agency official in Arizona, said Spangle’s comments “do not change our previous determinations.”

The Interior Department, which is the parent agency of the Fish and Wildlife Service, reiterated that stance in a statement Tuesday.

“U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has re-examined the issue at hand and using the best available science as required under the Endangered Species Act issued the same exact conclusion,” Interior spokeswoman Molly Block said.

El Dorado Holdings has already shared communications with the House committee, including an email from Ingram to Zinke about the meeting in Montana, Davis said. It was nothing more than a legal memo and summary, the attorney said.

“He didn’t say, `Hey, you and I have been buddies,”‘ Davis said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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