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Investigation faults role of Bush nominee at Interior

An Interior Department letter made public on Tuesday questions the role one of President Bush's judicial nominees played in a controversial deal with a Wyoming rancher accused of violating federal laws.

William G. Myers III was Interior's top lawyer when his office oversaw negotiations between the Bureau of Land Management and rancher Frank Robbins. In Senate testimony and interviews with department investigators, he said he didn't perform any of the legal work in the case.

But according to Inspector General Earl E. Devaney, Myers' office played an unusual role in the talks with Robbins. "In summary, our investigation found that in the negotiations and crafting of the settlement agreement, normal processes were circumvented; negotiations were conducted by the Office of Solicitor (SOL) without involving BLM in the process [and] concerns articulated by the Department of Justice and the BLM field office were ignored by the SOL," the February 10 letter stated.

And while the settlement eventually fell apart, Devaney said he is still concerned "about the manner in which the settlement agreement was conceived, negotiated and crafted."

The letter surfaced as Bush renominated Myers to a spot on an appeals court that hears an extremely large number of Indian law cases. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals covers more than 100 tribes in eight Western states, including California, and hears cases affecting Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians.

Last year, Senate Democrats successfully blocked Myers from advancing based on concerns similar to ones identified in the letter. He personally rescinded a legal opinion that paved the way for a gold mine on land sacred to the Quechan Nation. He did so without consulting the tribe or the BLM, which was on record against development.

"Did you ever talk with them at all?" asked Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Massaschusetts) in February 2004.

"No I did not," responded Myers.

The Community Rights Counsel, which released the letter, said it raised "serious questions about the operations" of the Solicitor's Office under Myers, who resigned in December 2003. The group said "Myers' willingness to bend over backward to aid grazing interests" is evident in the "sweetheart" deal given to Robbins.

Myers' connections to the ranching and mining industry -- he was a lobbyist for both -- played a large role in the debate over his nomination. In two other tribal cases, he intervened in favor of industry interests over tribes seeking to protect sacred sites and their lands.

He also advocated for a limited view of the trust responsibility in the Cobell v. Norton case and two tribal trust cases that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Bush administration lost its attempt to redefine the scope of trust relationship.

These actions prompted unprecedented opposition to Myers from Indian Country. The National Congress of American Indians, the National Indian Gaming Association, the California Nations Indian Gaming Association, the Native American Rights Fund, the National Tribal Environmental Council and dozens of tribes and Indian organizations united to fight the nomination.

Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee cited tribal concerns when they voted against advancing the nomination. But the Republican majority sent Myers to the Senate floor, where he was defeated by a filibuster.

Now that Republicans have increased the control of the Senate, they hope to push Myers through. Another confirmation hearing is expected within the next couple of weeks.

Relevant Documents:
Inspector General Letter | NCAI Resolution | Environmental Group's Letter | Holland & Hart Biography

Indianz.Com Profile:
Industry insider named to Interior (March 30, 2001)

From the Indianz.Com Archive:
Myers reversing sacred site opinion (10/25)
Bush nominee has no 'agenda' on Clinton decisions (6/21)

Relevant Links:
Community Rights Counsel -