Developer Chris Milam officially settled with the city of Henderson over an arena land deal gone bad, but one prominent defendant linked to a former national official in the Milam lawsuit is refusing to go away quietly.
Land consultant Mike Ford, one of four defendants listed with Milam in the city’s Jan. 28 lawsuit, refused to sign the settlement Thursday, arguing the deal violates his free speech rights to criticize the city.
Ford is a former Bureau of Land Management official who worked for both the city and Milam on the developer’s effort to buy 480 acres of BLM land for an arena complex in Henderson.
After months of working with city officials who backed the plan, Milam late last year declared the arena nonviable, though he still wanted to buy the land and flip it to homebuilders. That prompted the city to sue Milan and four consultants, alleging fraud.
The city also alleges Ford used his connections to friend and business partner Bob Abbey, who was then the BLM’s national director, to pave the way for the land deal. Abbey’s involvement is the subject of a federal investigation and on Thursday drew inquiries from the chairman of the U.S. House committee that overseas the BLM.
Ford said he cannot sign the settlement because it includes an unacceptable non-disparagement clause aimed at keeping the parties from criticizing one another.
Ford said in a statement: “I am merely asking for the opportunity to speak the ‘truth’ related to my actions associated with the BLM land sale. ... Now, after the city of Henderson has disparaged me, savagely, they are demanding that I give up my First Amendment right and constitutional guarantees to speak out and voice my opinion, or criticize the government, regarding the City’s misconduct and actions in this case, or anything else,” Ford’s statement said.
“That the city ... would even ask for such a provision is personally offensive. Frankly, it is a travesty that it would elect to spend taxpayer money on litigation rather than withdraw such a demand. I would hope this gives pause to the voters of Henderson — and the public in general.”
Joining Milam in the settlement is a legal consultant, Henderson lawyer John Marchiano.
Besides Ford, another defendant who refused to sign the settlement is public affairs specialist Lee Haney.
A fifth defendant, Christopher Stephens, settled with the city a month ago.
The city’s legal team will talk with lawyers representing Ford and Haney to reach agreement in the next two weeks. But if Ford does not sign the settlement, Henderson intends to file an updated motion asking a judge to order him to pay damages, City Attorney Josh Reid said.
In its lawsuit against Milam, the city alleged Ford filed BLM paperwork against its wishes. Ford denies he did anything wrong.
While the settlement removed Milam from the land deal, the controversy over the BLM land transaction continued Thursday in Washington, D.C.
Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, demanded that the Interior Department supply the committee documents related to the federal investigation of the BLM land deal.
House aides said Hasting’s call was born from a concern that the department may not be aggressively enforcing ethics rules or investigating ethics cases.
Ford and Abbey are partners in the Henderson-based firm Abbey, Stubbs and Ford LLC. The city added the firm as a defendant to the Milam lawsuit, and it will remain a defendant unless Ford signs the settlement.
Abbey has denied that he influenced the land deal. He and Ford have said their names will be cleared when the Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General completes its investigation.
In an email to the Review-Journal, Ford said: “Bob was not directly or indirectly involved in the transaction at any level, he does not stand to benefit, he has not accepted any money (or intends to accept any) for work we (Robcyn, LLC) accomplished in support of this transaction. The sale was conducted in complete compliance with all appropriate BLM laws, regulations, and rules and the land was sold as fair market value as determined by the Department of Interior’s Office of Valuation Services.”
In a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Hastings asked for a copy of any ethics advice Abbey had in relation to the land sale.
The House chairman also requested all communication among Abbey’s firm, Ford, and five top land officials within Interior, including Neil Kornze, the Nevadan who now is the BLM’s principal deputy director.
Hastings cited the Henderson case and several others that “have raised serious questions about whether the department and the IG are in fact aggressively pursuing allegations of wrongdoing” and whether current and former Interior officials are complying with ethics laws.
With Milam now out of the picture, his financial backers are in a position to take possession of the BLM land.
Under the settlement, the lenders — Rockafellow Investments LLC and II C.B. LLC — must pay the city $250,000 today to cover legal expenses and then $4.25 million when the land sale closes.
Milam had borrowed $16 million, including $10.5 million to pay the BLM. The lenders have until May 13 to close on the land deal.