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Advocacy groups, attorney charge Myers with misleading Senate

Environment & Energy News
April 13, 2005
Alex Kaplun

The nomination of former Interior Solicitor William Myers to the federal bench came under fire yesterday as opponents charged Myers with misleading the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Two advocacy groups -- the Community Rights Counsel (CRC) and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) -- yesterday released a letter from the lawyers of Wyoming rancher Frank Robbins stating Myers and other top Interior Department officials had full knowledge of a grazing settlement between the rancher and the federal government. Myers last month told the Senate Judiciary Committee he had no prior knowledge of the controversial settlement with Robbins.

The 12-page letter goes on to say that "all relevant parties within the Department of Justice and the Department of Interior were kept informed about all aspects of the negotiations and the settlement agreement." The law firm released a cover sheet of a fax sent Nov. 13, 2002 -- several weeks before the agreement was signed -- to Myers and several other officials asking if "anyone [has] any other changes to the Robbins' settlement agreement."

Marc Stimpert, a Kansas-based attorney with the Budd-Falen law offices representing Robbins, confirmed last night that he wrote the letter but did not say to whom it was sent. "It was sent out to some folks with the intent of telling the truth and so anyone who wanted to know the truth could see it," Stimpert said.

The controversy stems from a 2002 agreement that absolved Robbins from penalties associated with 16 violations of grazing laws and limited future enforcement actions for similar violations. The deal was widely criticized by environmental groups who charged it was put in place because of Robbins' political connections. The agreement was later voided by the Interior Department.

Judiciary Committee Democrats repeatedly questioned Myers -- a nominee for the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals -- during his committee hearing last month about how such a deal could take place without his knowledge.

During his testimony, Myers said he allowed other lawyers to handle the negotiations and that he did not play a role in the settlement discussions or approve the settlement. "I was not involved in the negotiations or discussion of that settlement, other than to tell the subordinate attorney that he had authority to settle that case," Myers said at the hearing when asked by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) about the settlement.

A report released by Interior Inspector General Earl Devaney earlier this year also absolved Myers of any wrongdoing in the matter and singled out former Associate Solicitor Bob Comer and others for withholding crucial information from other Interior officials.

Officials from CRC and PEER sent a letter to Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and ranking member Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) stating that the most recent documents directly contradict Myers' statements. "We urge the committee to investigate this new information, with inquiries directed to Mr. Myers, Mr. Comer, and Ms. Budd-Falen, before Mr. Myers' nomination is considered on the Senate floor," the groups wrote.

Myers was voted out of committee by a 10-8 party-line vote last month and is expected to be the first of President Bush's half-dozen previously filibustered nominees to hit the Senate floor in the next few weeks.

Specter has previously said Myers was brought up first during the 109th Congress because he had the best chance of the stalled nominees to gain confirmation this time around.

According to Specter, there are already 58 votes -- all 55 Republicans plus Sens. Joe Biden (D-Del.), Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) -- to end a filibuster on Myers, and several other Democrats may be convinced to vote with the GOP majority. "If senators who are considering Myers come through, we might have 60," Specter said last week.

But the most recent revelations concerning Myers will most likely provide further ammunition to Democrats and environmental groups seeking to block his nomination.

"The allegations raised by Mr. Robbins' attorney directly contradict Mr. Myers' written response to a question I submitted," said committee member Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.). "The Judiciary Committee should investigate these allegations immediately."

Frist still weighing 'nuclear option'

The most recent controversy over Myers' nomination comes as the Senate barrels toward a fight over the "nuclear option" that could result in a near shutdown of Senate activity. Senators on both sides of the aisle have said that Myers' nomination could be used by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) to implement a rule change that would essentially end filibusters on judicial nominees.

Democrats counter that they would bring the Senate to a standstill if the GOP makes such a change. Senators from both parties said in recent weeks that the issue has emerged as one of the most contentious the chamber has dealt with in decades, and numerous advocacy groups are involved in the escalating rhetoric from both sides.

Frist indicated yesterday he would like to reach some sort of compromise, though he remained intent on forcing President Bush's nominees through the Senate.

Frist said that he would propose in the next couple of weeks a compromise that would allow the Senate to avoid a showdown over the nuclear option. Frist did not disclose what the compromise would entail, but he called on the Senate to "lower the rhetoric" on the issue and to work toward some sort of agreement.

Still, Frist stood firm in his belief that Senate Democrats were violating Senate rules by filibustering nominees and said he would continue to press for up-or-down votes on all the nominees. "This is about principle," Frist said. "This is about a constitutional responsibility."

In recent days, several other members of the GOP caucus said they would like to avoid a confrontation that would prevent the Senate from handling numerous other pieces of legislation -- including a comprehensive energy bill.

"I'm just hopeful we can make some sort of compromise, but I don't know what the compromise will be," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). "There's been ways of working these things out."

McCain said over the weekend that he would vote against implementation of the nuclear option because it would set a "dangerous precedent" for future Senate activity. McCain's opposition further shrinks the level of support in the GOP caucus for implementing the rule change.

Along with McCain, Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe (Maine) and Lincoln Chafee (R.I.) have said they would vote against the nuclear option. Several others -- including Sens. John Warner (R-Va.), Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) -- have indicated they are hesitant to support such a proposal.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) on the Senate floor yesterday said the chamber needs to "avoid this train wreck." Alexander added that the Senate could avoid any future confrontations on the filibuster of nominees if six members from each side of the aisle vow to never oppose an appellate judicial nominee, regardless of which party held the White House.

Frist refused to comment yesterday on whether he had the 51 votes needed to change the Senate's rule.

Democrats, meanwhile, have shown no signs that they would be willing to either agree to a change in the Senate rules or allow confirmation of several of President Bush's more controversial nominees. Senate Democrats and their supporters have held several rallies on Capitol Hill vowing to continue opposing Bush's nominees.

"Senate Democrats are the only thing standing between President Bush and total power," said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) at a rally this week.

Reporter Dan Berman contributed to this article.

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