Frank Robbins Case Detailed in Today's Casper Star-Tribune
Here is the URL for today's (2/17/05) front page story by Brodie Farquhar in the Casper Star-Tribune about The U.S. Department of the Interior's Inspector-General's report about the special settlement engineered for Thermopolis, Wyoming rancher Frank Robbins:
The article is also included below.
Western Watersheds Project's ongoing lawsuit against the BLM over this settlement in federal District Court in Washington D.C. has been an instrumental part in the withdrawal of the settlement and in Frank Robbins not grazing any cattle on more than 50,000 acres of public land grazing allotments in north-central Wyoming.
The Robbins settlement has also brought additional attention to the nomination of William Myers to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals because of his position as Solicitor of the Department of the Interior at the time of the Robbins settlement.
By BRODIE FARQUHAR
with wire reports
The solicitor's office of the U.S. Interior Department mishandled a 2003 grazing deal between a Thermopolis rancher and the Bureau of Land Management, according to the department's inspector general.
The agreement between the BLM and rancher Frank Robbins, accused of violating a host of grazing laws, is a target of litigation by environmental groups and has raised questions about one of President Bush's nominees for a federal judgeship.
In a letter dated Feb. 10, Earl Devaney, the Interior Department's inspector general, said the solicitor's office "circumvented" normal negotiation processes, kept the BLM out of the negotiations, ignored concerns about the settlement raised by the Justice Department and engaged "in an inappropriate level of programmatic involvement" in the settlement talks.
Devaney called the deal with Robbins "a failure of process" and wrote that his office expects "corrective action to be taken by the (Interior Department)."
The solicitor general at the time of the agreement was William G. Myers III, one of a dozen Bush court nominations blocked in the last session of Congress by a Senate filibuster. Some 180 environmental, civil rights and American Indian groups have charged that he could not be impartial as a judge.
His supporters retorted that Myers was a fine candidate and that he was the victim of obstructionist tactics by Democrats and liberal interest groups.
Myers is a former lobbyist for the mining, grazing and cattle industries and has been nominated by Bush for a seat on the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Myers is among seven people the president just renominated to the federal bench this week.
The controversy stems from a long-standing clash between Robbins and the Worland field office of the BLM. Scion of a wealthy Alabama industrialist who has donated generously to Republican political campaigns, Robbins received a unique deal with the BLM in 2003 that the Office of the Solicitor put together when Myers headed that post.
In the late 1990s, complaints about Robbins' operation in BLM files included: cattle trespassing on the private property of neighbors and on the neighbors' BLM grazing allotments; grazing too early, too late and putting too many cattle on his allotments; blocking a neighbor's use of a cattle-drive trail; claiming his cattle were on private pasture when they were on BLM pastures; refusing to obtain recreation permits for his dude ranch trail drives over BLM lands; and refusing to modify his grazing practices during drought.
Robbins' lawyer, Karen Budd-Falen of Cheyenne, countered by asking federal inspectors to investigate the BLM office in Worland for misuse of public funds, trespassing, blackmail, perjury and other allegations.
The 2003 "settlement agreement" gave Robbins:
* Forgiveness for an alleged string of 16 grazing violations.
* A new grazing allotment with extensive management control over those federal lands.
* Rights of way across federal lands without reciprocal easements for the BLM.
* A special recreation permit to run his dude ranch.
* Unique status whereby only the director of the BLM could cite Robbins for future violations, not the local or state offices.
* The right to pursue a lawsuit seeking to have the BLM and several BLM employees prosecuted under the federal Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organization Act for harassment.
The agreement was reached after Robbins met with ranking officials of the BLM in Washington, D.C. He said in an interview last year that he had sought the meeting because he was being treated unfairly by BLM employees in Wyoming.
The BLM voided the settlement in January 2004, after Robbins was cited for nonwillful trespass of cattle on BLM-administered lands, and negotiations between Robbins and the BLM broke down. In turn, Robbins sued the agency, and the case is still pending in federal court in Cheyenne. So is the lawsuit alleging violation of the federal racketeering law by BLM employees.
Earlier this month, Budd-Falen brought another lawsuit against the Interior Department on Robbins' behalf, contending that environmental groups suing over the agreement in Washington, D.C., have illegally been given access to documents to which Robbins was denied access.
The settlement negotiated by Myers' office was opposed by the U.S. Attorney's office and BLM officials in Wyoming, who said it was inappropriate to accord such special treatment to an individual who has been cited repeatedly for grazing violations and it would undermine the agency's ability to enforce range management regulations.
In addition, Thomas D. Roberts, the assistant U.S. attorney in Cheyenne who was representing the BLM employees at the time, said he advised attorneys from Myers' staff that any settlement with Robbins should require him to drop his racketeering suit. Roberts, who is now an attorney for the Wyoming Board of Equalization, said in an interview that his advice was rejected. He refused to sign the settlement.
Because the agreement was voided by the BLM, Devaney wrote, his office's concerns about the terms of the deal "are no longer at issue.
"We remain concerned, however, about the manner in which the settlement agreement was conceived, negotiated and crafted."
Devaney's letter was to Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which had filed a complaint over the deal with Robbins.
Devaney said his office's investigation found "a large measure of inattention and acquiescence by senior BLM officials, an inappropriate level of programmatic involvement by the (solicitor's office), and a profound lack of transparency in the overall negotiation and agreement process."
Myers, now in private practice with the firm of Holland and Hart in Boise, Idaho, had no comment this week. Nor did Robbins' attorney.
In a 2003 preliminary report on the investigation, the Interior inspector general said Myers was personally briefed on the status of the Robbins deal.
The issue came up again during Senate hearings last year on Myers' judicial nomination. In response to a question from Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., Myers said, "I was not involved in the negotiations or discussions of that settlement, other than to tell a subordinate attorney that he had authority to try to settle that case."
In that Senate hearing, Myers emphasized that he did not see the settlement agreement until six months later, when news reports from Wyoming indicated that the settlement might have been illegal. Although Myers said he conducted his own investigation of the matter, he did not tell the senators what his conclusions were.