U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings wants answers about former BLM chief Bob Abbey’s role in the Chris Milam-BLM land deal in the city of Henderson — and expressed disappointment this week that he’s not getting any response from the Department of the Interior, which oversees the BLM.
Hastings, R-Wash., and chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, wrote Interior Secretary Sally Jewell on Wednesday saying his panel has not received any answers about Abbey since the congressional panel first requested information in March.
“Public officials must be held to the highest of standards. There are serious questions and the American people should be assured that administration officials are complying with federal ethics laws and not improperly benefiting for their position,” Hastings said Thursday. “It’s unfortunate that the Interior Department has thus far not cooperated with our request for documents, but we will continue to seek answers.”
Abbey’s connection to a bid by developer Chris Milam to purchase 480 acres from the Bureau of Land Management emerged as a subplot in Milam’s ill-fated attempt to build a professional sports complex in Henderson. In November, Milam bailed on his plan to build an arena but was sued by Henderson officials in January when he wanted to move ahead to buy the BLM land to flip it to homebuilders.
Abbey is the business partner of one of Milam’s consultants — Mike Ford, who is also a former BLM official.
Milam hired Ford to handle the BLM paperwork related to acquiring the land. Ford’s firm stood to make more than $500,000 if the land deal was completed, and Abbey told the Review-Journal that he would seek legal advice from the Department of the Interior about whether he could receive a share.
In Hastings’ letter, the committee chairman specifically highlighted that issue: “To date, the Department has not provided any of the requested communications involving specific Department employees. It is unclear from the Department’s responses whether Mr. Abbey did contact the Department to request ethics advice about his ability to share in fees provided to the consulting firm in connection with the Henderson land deal.”
Abbey, endorsed by Harry Reid, D-Nev., was tapped by the Obama administration to run the BLM in 2010. He retired from the agency in May 2012 and rejoined his firm with Ford on Aug. 1. Abbey’s name popped up in a 2011 email from consultant Ford to developer Milam about the BLM land deal in Henderson when Ford wrote that he spoke with Abbey and assured Milam, “we can expect full support and cooperation at the local, regional and national level.”
In the end, Milam settled with Henderson officials in March, and Milam’s creditors were denied a chance to close on the $10.6 million BLM land deal when the federal agency killed the transaction in May. Milam’s creditors then sued the BLM, alleging the agency lacks authority to pull the plug on the land deal.
The Office of Inspector General is also investigating this case.
Given a copy of Hastings’ letter, Ford responded this way: “We have consistently stated we welcome a full and complete review and investigation of any and all actions we took relative to the BLM land sale. We have encouraged the Department of Interior to release its findings publicly and we also welcome any oversight advanced by the Committee on Natural Resources.
“In the meantime, the wholly incorrect speculation contained in various newspaper articles concerning Bob Abbey’s role, or lack thereof, is unworthy of further comment.”
A Department of Interior spokeswoman said the department received Hastings’ letter but did not offer any further comment.
Contact reporter Alan Snel at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-5273.