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Report Fuels Questions About Judicial Nominee

February 16, 2005|Henry Weinstein | Times Staff Writer

The Interior Department's inspector general has issued a report criticizing the way department lawyers arranged a controversial settlement with a Wyoming rancher accused of violating a host of federal grazing laws while William G. Myers III was the department's top attorney.

Myers is among seven lawyers President Bush renominated to the federal bench this week after their nominations were blocked by Senate filibuster.

The inspector general's report has prompted renewed questions over Myers' bid to sit on the San Francisco-based U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which considers more environmental cases than any other federal appeals court.

Last year, Myers' nomination was filibustered after more than 180 environmental, Native American and civil rights organizations came out against him, saying his record as a private lawyer and as solicitor of the Interior Department from 2001 to 2003 demonstrated a record of hostility to environmental protections and tribal concerns that made it clear he could not be impartial as a judge.

His supporters replied that Myers was a fine candidate and that he was the victim of obstructionist tactics by Democrats and liberal interest groups.

The latest criticism stems from the intervention of Myers' office in actions brought by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management against a cattle rancher cited for alleged repeated trespasses of his livestock on federal land, resulting in overgrazing, the government said.

In a letter dated Thursday, Earl Devaney, the Interior Department's inspector general, said the solicitor's office "circumvented" normal negotiation processes, kept the BLM out of the negotiations, ignored concerns about the settlement raised by the Justice Department and engaged "in an inappropriate level of programmatic involvement" in the settlement talks.

The settlement, reached in 2002, excused rancher Harvey Frank Robbins from 16 trespassing violations and specified that only the director of the BLM could cite him for future violations, not the local office in Worland, Wyo., or the state office in Cheyenne, as would normally be the case.

In addition, the agreement gave Robbins a new grazing allotment, "additional flexibility" over certain federal lands, rights of way across federal lands, a special recreational permit to run a dude ranch and a promise to facilitate a land exchange. The agreement was reached after Robbins met with ranking officials of the BLM in Washington.

He said in an interview last year that he had sought the meeting because he was being treated unfairly by BLM employees in Wyoming.

By that point, Robbins had filed a suit in federal court in Cheyenne, asserting that BLM employees had violated federal racketeering laws in their dealings with him. The employees are being defended by the Justice Department, and the suit is pending.

The settlement negotiated by Myers' office was opposed by the U.S. attorney's office and BLM officials, who said it was inappropriate for an individual who had been cited repeatedly for grazing violations and that it would undermine enforcement of range management rules.

In addition, Thomas D. Roberts, the assistant U.S. attorney in Cheyenne who was representing the BLM employees at the time, said he had advised attorneys from Myers' staff that any settlement with Robbins should require him to drop his racketeering suit. Roberts, who is now an attorney for the Wyoming State Board of Equalization, said in an interview that his advice was rejected. He refused to sign the settlement.

In January 2004, the Interior Department voided the settlement, saying that Robbins had violated its terms. In turn, Robbins sued the agency, and that case, too, is pending in federal court in Cheyenne.

Inspector General Devaney issued a report on the settlement in November 2003, which said that Myers was personally briefed on the status of the deal.

Myers was questioned briefly about the Robbins settlement during his judicial nomination hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee last February. In response to a question from Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), Myers said, "I was not involved in the negotiations or discussions of that settlement, other than to tell a subordinate attorney that he had authority to try to settle that case."

He also said he did not approve the settlement. He added that he did not ask for a copy of the agreement until six months later, after press reports in Wyoming suggested the settlement may have been illegal. Myers testified that he then conducted an investigation of the settlement, but he not did state what his conclusions were.

Myers has represented mining and grazing interests for years and now works for a law firm in Boise, Idaho. From 1993 to 1997, he was executive director of the Public Lands Council, a trade group that advocates for ranchers who graze cattle and sheep on public lands.

Neither Myers nor Robbins' attorney had any comment Tuesday.

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