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High-level connections raise questions in Henderson stadium deal

Bob Abbey ran the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for nearly three years before he retired last May. And in 2011, during Abbey’s watch as national BLM director, the city of Henderson endorsed the sale of 480 acres of BLM land with the understanding that controversial developer Chris Milam would buy it and build a professional stadium complex.

Abbey’s agency sold thousands of acres of federal land to developers around the country while he was BLM chief. Those 480 acres in Henderson? Barely a blip on the agency’s radar.

Except for one thing.

Abbey is now a business partner of Michael Ford, a fellow ex-BLM official who was hired by Milam to work on the land deal. Ford stands to make more than $1 million in a success fee if the BLM transfers the land to Milam on Wednesday. Abbey and Ford are partners of the Henderson land consulting firm of Abbey, Stubbs & Ford. Ford also worked for the city of Henderson in preparing a public notice for the deal and holds other consulting contracts with the city.

The $1 million success fee is outlined in an affidavit by Henderson City Attorney Josh Reid in the city’s lawsuit accusing Milam, Ford and three other defendants of conspiring in a bait-and-switch land scheme to get an inside track on the land at a below-market price and then flip it for residential use instead of the promised stadium complex.

Abbey, the BLM’s national director from August 2009 through May 2012 and Nevada BLM chief for eight years, is not a party to the lawsuit. But as Ford’s business partner and a former top BLM official, Abbey could influence BLM’s decision whether to transfer the land to Milam this week, Las Vegas Valley developer John Ritter said.

Ritter is a founder of Focus Property Group, which built the Mountain’s Edge and Providence master-planned communities in the valley. His company supervised the Inspirada master-planned development adjacent to Milam’s 480 acres while that development was in bankruptcy.

"There should be due diligence to see if Abbey has influence on the decision. At the very least, a study should be done," Ritter said. "Doesn’t it need to be looked at before the land is transferred?"

Apparently not, a BLM spokeswoman said Monday.

Hillerie Patton, a spokeswoman in the agency’s Las Vegas office, said Abbey has no impact on the scheduled transfer set for Wednesday.

Abbey could not be reached for comment Monday. In another local connection, City Attorney Reid’s father, U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, recommended Abbey to become BLM’s national chief in 2009.

Henderson officials are not trying to legally block the BLM land transfer to Milam. Instead, they are set to appear in District Court today to ask a judge to prohibit Milam from using the land for anything except a stadium-arena project.

The city of Henderson issued this response when asked about Abbey’s possible role:

"The city is concerned with the actions of Mr. Milam and the individuals named in our complaint. The BLM has always been a great government partner with the City and we have no issue with their involvement in this process.

"We are very grateful for the working relationship we enjoy with the BLM. We’ve shared our concerns with them and know that they have taken the City’s input on this issue very seriously. We appreciate the BLM’s diligence in this regard and look forward to continuing to work with them in the future."

Ritter, who has himself purchased land from BLM, also argued that Milam’s $10.5 million winning bid for the 480 acres was too low. He said $22,000 per acre is well below what the land is worth, arguing it should have gone for at least $100,000 per acre, or $48 million.

"My concern is that the U.S. government is being ripped off," Ritter said. He noted that if the BLM transfers the land to Milam, the property will stay vacant because the city zoning prohibits residential use and the city will lose tax revenue.

Milam was the sole bidder for the land. He matched the federal appraised value of $10.5 million, which is sitting in escrow.

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

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