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Interior Attorney Pushed Land Deal

U.S. agency's chief lawyer, now an appeals court nominee, urged turning over publicly owned parcel to firm.

March 08, 2004|Henry Weinstein | Times Staff Writer

MARYSVILLE, Calif. — Last June, at the suggestion of the Interior Department's chief lawyer, William G. Myers III, two congressmen from Northern California introduced a bill that would have given away $1 million worth of public land near this city north of Sacramento to a private firm.

Myers, who had represented mining and cattle interests as a private lawyer before taking the job as solicitor of the Interior Department, acted without consulting the federal government's land managers on the scene. Those officials believed the private company, Yuba River Properties, had no valid claim to the land.

The company claimed it had validly purchased a deed for the land that it said had been issued by the government in the 1940s.

Myers now has been nominated by President Bush for a seat on the federal appeals court that hears cases from California and eight other Western states. With the nomination drawing opposition from many environmental and liberal organizations, Myers' role in suggesting the land bill has become an issue in the confirmation.

"Myers' attempt to give away valuable public lands in this case is another example of how he used his position as Interior solicitor to put the private interests of the industries that paid his bills in private practice over the public's interest," said Doug Kendall, executive director of Community Rights Counsel, one of the organizations leading the opposition to Myers' nomination to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Thursday evening, after inquiries by The Times, the Interior Department reversed field and told the two congressmen, Reps. John Doolittle (R-Rocklin) and Wally Herger (R-Marysville) that the department was withdrawing its support for the bill.

David L. Bernhardt, who serves as the department's director of congressional and legislative affairs and counselor to Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton, said the agency had changed its position on the basis of "additional research" by the Bureau of Land Management and Interior Department lawyers in Sacramento.

Those lawyers discovered "two important new facts of which Solicitor Myers was not aware" when he proposed the legislation, Bernhardt wrote in a letter to the congressmen that was provided to The Times.

One of the facts was that, even though Yuba River Properties was claiming it had had a valid claim to the land all along, it had never paid taxes on the property. Another, according to a report released by Interior Department officials, was that "since at least 1993," the property in question "has been carried on the county's tax records as public lands."

Myers, now back in private life as an attorney in Boise, Idaho, declined to comment.

Matt McKeown, an attorney in the solicitor's office, said Friday that Myers' proposal to award the land to the company through what is known as a private relief bill had been "cleared through our normal process, which includes the Office of Legislative Affairs and the White House's Office of Management and Budget."

Myers was "relying on facts provided by members of Congress" when he suggested that the legislation would be appropriate, McKeown said, adding that "the record shows that Bill did his job."

Although subsequent research contradicted Myers' proposal, anyone criticizing his actions in this situation, McKeown said, "is holding him to a standard of omniscience."

The land at issue is part of 9,670 acres of gravel mounds and ponds known as the Yuba Goldfields that were created by hydraulic mining in the 19th century.

The technique, which was used for many years but eventually stopped because of the enormous damage it caused, involved using high-pressure hoses to erode hillsides in search of gold. It dislodged large amounts of sand and rock, which could then be easily mined.

Although the land no longer contains gold, the sand and rock are much in demand for construction projects and are worth hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of dollars, according to the BLM.

In addition to the gravel and scrub brush, there is a considerable variety of bird life in the area, including wild turkeys, and one of the last genetically pure lines of Chinook salmon inhabits the area's streams, according to Defense of Place, a San Francisco-based environmental organization.

The three partners in Yuba River Properties, Merlynn J. Barbour, Darrel E. Pierce and Philip C. Sutherling, contend their firm is entitled to 8 acres of the Goldfields land, a plot known as Lot 5. They base their claim on a deed that a previous company, Yuba Consolidated Goldfields, bought for $3,500 from the U.S. Army in 1943.

In 1998, Yuba River Properties acquired the deed. The next year, the company made a mining deal with a local firm.

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