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Criminal charges sought in big Benson development

Congressional committee claims bribes given
Posted at 8:33 PM, May 11, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-11 23:33:51-04

BENSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — A large home development in Benson has been stalled by environmental concerns for many years. Now there is a push coming from part of Congress for criminal charges around efforts to get the deal through.

The stakes are high with a long standing plan to build 28 thousand houses on land near Benson. So high that a Congressional committee says there was bribery involved in getting a permit to let the work go ahead. The committee wants a criminal prosecution. The company says it did nothing wrong.

Obama was President when developers first started trying to transform open desert near Benson into The Villages at Vigneto.

Environmental concerns, especially over whether there’s enough water to support the development made a U.S. Fish and Wildlife official hesitate to rule that the development’s water use would not affect wildlife.

He changed his ruling but later said he’d been pressured by agency officials to change his stand.

Now the House Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva says that pressure came after a Deputy Secretary of the Interior met secretly with Mike Ingram, El Dorado Holdings and Veneto’s lead developer— and after Ingram and others sent about a quarter million dollars to a Trump campaign fund and the Republican National Committee. The Committee has asked the Justice Department to consider criminal bribery charges against Ingram and former Interior Secretary David Berhardt.

Grijalva says, in part: “The findings of this investigation show us yet again that the previous administration cast career staff expertise aside while they handed out federal agency decisions to Trump’s buddies and big donors on a pay-to-play basis.”

You can read the request for Justice Department prosecution at this link.

Attorney Lanny Davis says the company’s dealings were entirely above board.

“There isn't one word in the entire letter that is a fact to suggest that Mr. Ingram asks for anything other than facts and the law. But there is a lot of something else reminiscent of the 1950s in the McCarthy era. You could throw out innuendo and not provide a fact to support it and ruin people's lives. That's called McCarthyism.”

Davis says other Federal officials confirmed the recommendation to approve the project but as of now The Army Corps of Engineers has suspended the water use permit while it considers the case.

Davis sent a supplemental statement:

“The authors of the Committee referral to DOJ conveniently misled when they failed to quote from an independent review by local U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service officials to address the charge that the permit for the Vigneto project was continued because of political influence. The referral letter never quoted from that June 12, 2019 letter and independent review. Here is what it said:

"We take the allegations made by Mr. Spangle seriously. For this reason, our reevaluation has occurred at the field office level only with no regional or Washington D.C. headquarters review. Mr. Spangle’s allegations do not change our previous determinations regarding the effects of the Corps’ actions on listed species or their designated or proposed critical habitat in the action area. Our decision is based only upon facts contained in the records supporting our October 26, 2017 concurrence.’ (emphasis added)."

As you can see, this letter proves that innuendo contained in the Committee’s referral – that it was political influence that caused the permit to continue – was contradicted by this independent review. Isn’t it curious the authors of this referral letter chose not to quote this passage? This is further reason I intend to challenge the innuendo assertions that El Dorado or its executive did anything but ask federal officials to focus on the facts and the law, and nothing else.”

--Lanny J. Davis, attorney for El Dorado

28 Thousand houses and the people in them will bring major changes to Benson. Some see business opportunities, other residents like Larraine Milne question the business boost but see sure fire trouble for water and nature in a big surge of new homes.

She says, “I think it'd be horrible. And I mean, I want the town to grow. Yes, but I don't want it to grow exponentially. I mean, we're like, what, what, 6000 people no I think during snowbirds, and I mean, it's a nice community. I like living here. If I wanted to live in a big community. I’d live in Tucson.”

Craig Smith is a reporter for KGUN 9. With more than 40 years of reporting in cities like Tampa, Houston and Austin, Craig has covered more than 40 Space Shuttle launches and covered historic hurricanes like Katrina, Ivan, Andrew and Hugo. Share your story ideas and important issues with Craig by emailing or by connecting on Facebook and Twitter.