PHOENIX (AP) — An attorney for an Arizona real estate developer who was referred to the Justice Department for a criminal investigation with a former Trump administration cabinet member by a congressional committee Democrats has demanded on Thursday that he be allowed to publicly refute the allegations against his client.
Lanny Davis, one of the attorneys representing Arizona developer Michael Ingram, said the House Natural Resources Committee wrongly accused Ingram and former Interior Secretary David Bernhardt of corruption.
“I ask all of these members, Republicans and Democrats, to give me a chance to publicly refute what I and Mr. Ingram believe are false or misleading allegations of criminal conduct,” Davis told reporters. “I would like to appear before the full committee.”
Last week’s criminal referral exposed what Democrats on the committee said were a series of campaign contributions totaling $241,000 to committees associated with Trump by Ingram and another wealthy Arizona resident he knows.
They said evidence they gathered during a three-year investigation into the committee strongly suggested the payments were made in exchange for Bernhardt pushing an agency he oversaw to withdraw its opposition to a development of 28,000 homes in Ingram-controlled southern Arizona.
The criminal referral from Democratic Reps. Raul Grijalva of Arizona and Katie Porter of California says Bernhardt pushed for approval of the Villages at Vigneto project despite a federal wildlife official’s conclusion that it would threaten the species’ habitats in danger.
Bernhardt led the Interior from 2019 to 2021. In 2017, he was the department’s No. 2 official when the Fish and Wildlife Service, an agency of the Interior Department, overturned its opposition to Ingram’s project.
He called the criminal referral a “pathetic attempt by career politicians to fabricate news”.
Davis said Ingram cooperated fully with the investigation and provided documents, emails and other materials without the panel issuing a subpoena. He said he was “100% transparent and cooperative with committee staff and with Mr Grijalva’s requests”.
Davis said he repeatedly asked if Grijalva would be willing to meet with Ingram and never got an answer.
Lindsay Gressard, a spokeswoman for the Natural Resources Committee, said the panel believed it gathered enough evidence to merit the criminal referral.
“We just felt we were going to present the evidence we had and let the DOJ go from there,” Gressard said.
Grijalva said in a statement that he hoped Ingram would cooperate with the Justice Department.
Davis noted that the only wildlife involved was “two birds and a snake,” but conservationists also fear the project near the San Pedro River could jeopardize the region’s dwindling water supply.
The referral to the Justice Department laid out a series of meetings, administrative actions and campaign donations in mid-to-late 2017 that Democrats on the committee said showed a disturbing pattern they called a illegal consideration.
Democrats noted that Ingram met with Bernhardt in August 2017, two weeks before a Fish and Wildlife official received the phone call ordering him to reverse the decision to block the project. The meeting was not disclosed in Bernhardt’s public calendar or travel documents.
Two months later, Ingram donated $10,000 to the Trump Victory Fund. The permit was approved later that month. At least nine other donors associated with Ingram also donated to the Trump Victory Fund in the days following Ingram’s donation, Democrats said.
Davis said his press conference was not intended to influence a possible Justice Department investigation. Ingram owns development company El Dorado Holdings and is part owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks. He is a Trump supporter and has made contributions to the Republican Governor of Arizona and other GOP candidates in the state in recent years. Davis said Ingram hired former U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton to handle the case.
A Justice Department spokesperson said last week that the department would review the removal.
Davis said the criminal reference omitted material that could help exonerate his client and repeatedly said the correlation between meetings, campaign donations and Fish and Wildlife’s change in position proves nothing.
“These are insinuations, not fact,” Davis said.
Associated Press reporter Matthew Daly in Washington contributed.