The Interior Department's inspector general has criticized the actions of a judicial nominee who is seen by some Republicans as the best hope of breaking Senate Democrats' long-standing resistance to some of President Bush's choices for federal judgeships.
The judicial nominee, former Interior Department solicitor William G. Myers III, bypassed normal procedures in dealing with a Wyoming rancher who repeatedly violated federal grazing laws, according to a letter from the inspector general.
Opponents of Myers's nomination -- one of several filibustered by Democrats last year -- say the complaint adds new arguments against the appointee. Yesterday, they urged senators to look into the complaint during a Judiciary Committee hearing to be held in about two weeks.
Myers is an Idaho-based lawyer whom Bush has tapped for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. Last July, Senate Republicans did not get the 60 votes needed to stop a filibuster led by Democrats, who criticized Myers's environmental record.
Myers is among the 12 candidates for federal appeals court seats resubmitted to the Senate by Bush this week. Key Republicans have signaled that they want Myers to be the first of the group sent back to the Senate floor, hoping Democrats would find him more acceptable than others. Yesterday's disclosure of the inspector general's letter could complicate that strategy.
In 2002, Myers was the solicitor for the Interior Department when it was embroiled in a dispute over grazing rights in Wyoming with rancher Frank Robbins.
Last week, Interior's inspector general, Earl E. Devaney, criticized the solicitor's role in seeking an agreement with Robbins, saying "normal processes were circumvented" and the "concerns articulated by the Department of Justice and the BLM [Bureau of Land Management] field office were ignored by the SOL [Office of the Solicitor]."
In a letter to the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, Devaney did not mention Myers by name, but he repeatedly criticized the solicitor's office under his leadership. "We found . . . an inappropriate level of programmatic involvement by the SOL, and a profound lack of transparency in the overall negotiation and agreement process," Devaney wrote.
The environmental group Community Rights Counsel publicly released Devaney's letter yesterday, saying in a statement: "After a two-year investigation into an outrageous settlement that gave a politically connected Wyoming rancher named Frank Robbins virtually carte blanche authority to violate federal grazing laws," Devaney "placed blame squarely upon the Office of Solicitor, headed by Solicitor William Myers." Doug Kendall, the group's executive director, called on the Judiciary Committee to fully explore the matter.
Myers, a Virginia native who received a bachelor's degree from William & Mary in 1977, did not respond to a phone call and an e-mail message seeking a comment yesterday.
In a Feb. 5, 2004, Judiciary Committee hearing into his first nomination, Myers distanced himself from the Robbins dispute. "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 testified. He added that he was not aware of the settlement's final terms.
Community Rights Counsel, however, cited a November 2003 letter by Devaney that it said "confirms that Myers was personally briefed on the status of the Robbins settlement on several occasions."
A June 2003 article in the Billings Gazette in Montana described Robbins as a "rancher with a history of violations and clashes with the Bureau of Land Management." Robbins's dispute with the BLM, it said, "has become a saga of escalating frustration on both sides, complaints and countercomplaints, lawsuits, appeals and now a unique settlement agreement," reached during Myers's time as solicitor. "The deal is highly unusual within the BLM and appears to depart from long-running requirements spelled out in federal law about who can receive grazing permits."
Early last year, the Bureau of Land Management canceled the agreement after Robbins was cited for willful trespass of cattle.
Myers spent much of his career as a lobbyist for mining and grazing interests. The liberal group People for the American Way, which opposes Myers and several other Bush judicial nominees, said that, as Interior's solicitor, Myers "continued to serve the corporate interests for which he had lobbied, working zealously to overturn decisions and erase regulations which protected our public lands from corporate interests."
Republicans have defended Myers's record and have accused Senate Democrats of being obstructionists. Last year's filibuster of Myers, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said at the time, "is nothing more than a reflection of special-interest-group disdain for policies favored by farmers, ranchers, miners, the Bush Interior Department or anyone else who advocates balanced uses of western lands."
Research editor Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.