Feds find fault with former BLM director’s role in aborted Henderson stadium project

The former director of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management “stood to benefit personally” in 2012 when he tried to fast-track the sale of federal land in Henderson to a stadium developer, according to a government investigation report released Tuesday.

The joint investigation by the FBI and the Office of the Inspector General showed then-BLM director Bob Abbey was “personally and substantially involved” in the review process for the land sale, despite his connections to the transaction.

The deal was being pushed by former BLM employee Mike Ford, Abbey’s friend and onetime partner in a private consulting firm where Abbey worked both before and after his three-year stint as head of the federal agency. The firm stood to receive a $528,000 “success fee” after the land sale went through.

Ford was working as a consultant for the City of Henderson and controversial Texas developer Chris Milam, who was floating plans for a $650 million professional sports arena that would never be built.

The FBI and Inspector General’s Office presented its findings to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which “declined the matter for prosecution in September 2015,” according to the report.

Messages left for Abbey were not returned Wednesday. The website for Las Vegas-based land and energy consulting firm Abbey, Stubbs &Ford lists him as a partner and touts his service as both national director and Nevada director for the BLM.

President Barack Obama nominated Abbey as the bureau’s top man in 2009.

As part of his appointment, investigators said, Abbey signed what’s known as a “recusal form” stating that he had resigned his position as a private consultant but “expected to rejoin the firm as a member” after his government service. In the same form, he pledged not to “participate personally and substantially in any particular matter that had a direct and predictable effect on the financial interests of the firm.”

Investigators said Abbey’s relationship with Ford gave the consultant unusual access to the BLM and its staff during the review process for the land sale, and at the prompting of both Ford and Abbey, key documents were processed far faster than usual.

Abbey retired as BLM director on May 31, 2012.

The report says he told investigators he never received any payment from the consulting firm or anyone else as a result of the land sale in Henderson.

“That was one of the issues that I went back and looked at,” he is quoted saying. “I wanted to make sure that when I looked somebody in the eye and said: ‘I have not received a penny from Milam,’ that it was the truth.”

Henderson City Attorney Josh Reid called the investigation and report a “cautionary tale on lobbying” but said it doesn’t really change anything from the city’s perspective.

“I’m glad they did a review of the process. I think that’s important,” he said.

But the city’s beef was always with the Milam, not the BLM, Reid said.

Henderson had entered into an agreement with Milam to develop the 480 acre site at city’s southwestern edge as a sports complex capable of attracting the NBA’s Sacramento Kings or another pro franchise.

The federal government sold the land to Milam on June 4, 2012, and Milam paid the balance owed on the property on Nov. 28, 2012. That same day, he sent a letter to city officials declaring the stadium project “not viable” and terminating his agreement with the city.

That triggered a lawsuit by Henderson accusing Milam and his consultants of conspiring to commit fraud by proposing an arena when they actually planned to buy the land from the BLM at a discount and flip it home builders.

The suit was quickly settled, with Milam agreeing to never again do business in the city.

In their report, federal investigators said they found “no evidence that Milam purchased the land with the intent to ‘flip’ it” but did not elaborate.

Reid said it was “odd” to see that statement included in the document without context. “I don’t know what they based that on,” he said, but the issue has already been settled through litigation as far as the city is concerned.

Reid said he hadn’t thought about “the whole Milam experience” for a while until he read the investigation report Tuesday night. “That was kind of a blast from the past,” he said.

“Our interest was to protect Henderson and Henderson taxpayers,” Reid added. “We were made whole.”

The BLM eventually canceled the sale of the 480 acres, which remains untouched between the M Resort and the Inspirada master-planned development now underway in Henderson.

Milam’s former financial backers sued over the government’s decision not to sell them the land, and the case is now on appeal, Reid said.

Henderson officials seem ready to put the whole affair behind them.

“We’d like to get that land out of federal hands and into private development. We’d like to see it put to productive use,” Reid said. “That’s our only kind of interest left.”

Contact Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350. Find @RefriedBrean on Twitter.

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