Henderson stadium land sale under federal investigation

The federal government will investigate the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s pending sale of a 480-acre site in Henderson to embattled developer Christopher Milam, who once targeted the land for an arena-stadium project.

Late Friday, Department of the Interior spokeswoman Jessica Kershaw issued a statement saying, “The Department has requested that the matter be reviewed by the Inspector General. The Bureau of Land Management has not yet processed the patent and is fully reviewing the transaction.”

Initially endorsed by the city of Henderson, the land sale has been controversial since November, when Milam told city officials that the proposed major league sports complex they wanted is not financially viable. After learning that Milam was marketing the land for residential and commercial uses counter to a land development agreement, the city filed a lawsuit on Jan. 28 seeking to prevent any use other than a sports complex.

The inspector general’s office will determine the nature of the investigation. Kershaw did not respond when asked what prompted the agency’s request for a review. The IG’s office did not return a call seeking comment late Friday.

The Review-Journal reported last week that former BLM Director Bob Abbey and his business partner, Michael Ford, stand to gain from work Ford performed as a consultant helping Milam in dealings with the BLM in acquiring the 480 acres. Ford and his land use consultancy, Abbey, Stubbs & Ford, stand to collect a success fee of more than $500,000 if the developer obtains control of the BLM land.

That success is at least delayed. The $10.5 million sale was scheduled to close three days ago but has been put off to March 28.

Abbey was head of the BLM in Nevada for eight years before becoming head of the BLM with the endorsement of U.S. Sen. Harry Reid in 2009. He retired from the agency in May. Ford, also a former BLM official, was hired by Milam and the city to help with the BLM land transfer.

Milam, Abbey and Henderson city officials could not be reached for comment.

Ford’s lawyers had no problem with the federal probe.

“We welcome an inquiry into the transaction,” said Bill Maupin, a partner in the Las Vegas law firm of Lionel Sawyer & Collins, which is representing Ford.

Henderson City Attorney Josh Reid — the son of Sen. Reid — said in a court filing that Ford threatened him during a Nov. 30 phone conversation, “stating that he and the City should not interfere with the transfer of the Land to Milam, and indicated that there was nothing that the City could do to prevent the BLM from issuing the patent.”

Ford in court papers denies making a threat. Milam, Ford and three other members of Milam’s development team are named in the Henderson city lawsuit, which alleges a bait-and-switch scheme to obtain the land through fraud.

Abbey was still in charge of the BLM when Henderson nominated the parcel — endorsing its sale — with the understanding Milam would build an arena there. Milam was the sole bidder, matching the government’s appraised value of $10.5 million. He paid for the land on Nov. 28 — the same day he told Henderson the sports complex plan was not financially viable, which he maintained would release him from the development agreement.

Las Vegas developer John Ritter, who has bought BLM land in the past but is not involved in the Milam deal, said the investigation is appropriate because Abbey could potentially influence BLM’s decision on whether to transfer the property to Milam.

“I’m glad to hear the inspector general is investigating it,” said Ritter, developer of the Mountain’s Edge and Providence master-planned communities in the valley. “The entire transaction … needs to be looked at.”

Contact reporter Alan Snel at asnel@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5273.

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