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How did Richard Pombo become House Resources Chair?

Land of Enchantment
01 November 2006

If you’ve seen one redwood, you’ve seen `em all - Ronald Reagan

Do you remember Julia Butterfly Hill? She spent a couple years camped 150 feet above the ground in the boughs of an old growth redwood tree — to protect it from being cut down. Much to my surprise, my research into how Richard Pombo (R, CA-11) got his plum appointment to the Chairmanship of House Resources has crossed paths with her story.

Pacific Lumber Co., which owns the tree, agreed not to cut it down, and Hill agreed to leave the tree and come back only for occasional visits.

Hill, who is 25, had apparently humbled a corporate giant simply by refusing to come down from a tree. She had stayed up in Luna [her name for the tree] for 738 days, declining to descend until Luna was granted a reprieve from the chain saws of Pacific Lumber, the Scotia company owned by Maxxam Corp. of Houston, Texas.

A few weeks back, I read EZ writer’s diary The gang that couldn’t bribe straight: LA Times scoop!!! on Daily Kos, inspired by a very good article in the Los Angeles Times. It got me thinking. Or rather, it connected with a question that I’ve been puzzling about lately anyhow: How was it that Richard Pombo (R, CA-11) got his position as chairman of the House Resources Committee? Resources is a pretty rich bailiwick, overseeing oil, mining, logging, Indian Country (gaming, Indian trust suit), and even the Marianas Islands. Many of these areas of responsibility intersect with interests of the Abramoff/Delay bunch.

From the Denver Post, January 10, 2003

House Republican leaders chose Rep. Richard Pombo, a California rancher and committed foe of the Endangered Species Act, to oversee public lands and environmental protection in the West as chairman of the House Resources Committee.

Pombo leapt ahead of more senior contenders in part because of his ability to raise money, said an infuriated Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colorado Springs [home of James Dobson Focus on the Family.] Hefley, chairman of the House Ethics Committee, said Pombo’s selection gives the appearance that powerful posts can be bought.

“Fundraising evidently was an enormous part of it,” Hefley said. “It’s unseemly. It’s like buying seats, and we shouldn’t do that.”

Is this the same Ethics Committee Chair who was unceremoniously dumped from that position for having the temerity to lead the committee to admonish Delay (three times!) for shady dealings? The story later continues:

While in Congress, Pombo has traveled across the country holding hearings on what he considers the excesses of the Endangered Species Act, and even advocated for continued hunting of elephants in Africa for their ivory tusks.

For a side trip, take a look at this picture of Pombo’s vision for his political party’s mascot. But be warned: It’s not pretty, and will leave an indelible impression.

[Pombo’s] selection by a 28-member Republican steering committee ends a bitter intraparty feud between seven lawmakers. [John] Duncan [TN-02], who once compared an environmental campaign to Nazi propaganda, was considered a more moderate consensus candidate.

Pombo had the sixth-lowest seniority among the seven candidates

Back to the redwoods, and Pacific Lumber. It’s a classic case of “follow the money”. Pacific Lumber is a subsidiary of headquartered Maxxam, Inc. Charles Hurwitz owns roughly 25% of Maxxam, controlling interest. (Maxxam, as it happens, also owns Kaiser Aluminum. But that’s getting off topic for this story.) Hurwitz owned controlling interest in a failed Texas S&L, which cost U.S. taxpayers about $1.6 billion to bail out. The FDIC was seeking to recover $300 million of that cost from Hurwitz/Maxxam.

Big money? Houston? Enter Tom Delay:

The effort to help Hurwitz began in February 1999 when DeLay wrote a letter to the chairman of the FDIC denouncing the investigation of Hurwitz as a “form of harassment and deceit on the part of government employees.” When the FDIC persisted, [John] Doolittle [R, CA-04] and Pombo — both considered proteges of DeLay — used their power as members of the House Resources Committee to subpoena the agency’s confidential records on the case, including details of the evidence FDIC investigators had compiled on Hurwitz.

Delay’s letter was contemporaneous with Ms. Hill’s epic arboreal habitation, which ended on December 18, 1999 San Francisco Chronicle:

Through Pacific Lumber president John Campbell, Maxxam chairman Charles Hurwitz had denigrated, threatened and cajoled Hill, first threatening to remove her from the tree and then intimating legal action would follow.

She responded by sending Hurwitz chatty letters and Christmas cards, but she says he never responded. And she stayed in the tree, of course, insouciantly giving radio interviews by cell phone, answering letters and dispatching press releases that were sometimes eloquent, sometimes hackneyed, but always focused on the same point: Given their profound scarcity, she said, big old trees shouldn’t be cut down.

Nonetheless, Hill said she admired Hurwitz as a worthy adversary in their fractious debate. “Hurwitz is a master chess player,” Hill observed. “He’s brilliant — I felt like I was his pawn so many times. If he ever got in touch with his heart, he could do amazing work.”

Hurwitz may or may not have been in touch with his heart. He was definitely in touch with Delay, who had a couple of willing protegés in Doolittle and Pombo. In the last few hours of February 1999, Hurwitz, President of Maxxam, had brokered a deal where the company was paid $480 million, not to log 10,000 acres of old growth redwoods, part of a 63,000 acre virgin forest known as the Headwaters Stand. After some high-tension brinksmanship, which is characteristic of Hurwitz’s business style, the whole 10k acres was bought with federal and state money to the tune of $480 million. This was just days after Delay got personally involved by writing the FDIC.

Even for a rich guy, half a billion qualifies as more than chump change. Add that to the $1.6 billion taxpayers paid to bail out the savings & loan he allegedly looted. Helluva corporate welfare package!

Contrary to Delay’s “suggestions”, the FDIC continued with its case. So, during 2000, Delay set up a task force to investigate the FDIC. It was headed by Rep. Doolittle, with Pombo as sidekick.

From the LA Times:

[T]he actions of the two Californians reflect DeLay’s broad strategy of cementing relationships with individuals, business interests and lobbyists whose financial support enabled Republicans to extend their grip on Congress and on government agencies as well. The system DeLay developed and Abramoff took part in went beyond simple quid pro quo; it mobilized whatever GOP resources were available to help those who could help the party.

In the Hurwitz case, Doolittle and Pombo were in a position to pressure the FDIC and did so. Pombo received a modest campaign contribution. In another case, Pombo helped one of Abramoff’s clients, the Mashpee Indians in Massachusetts, gain official recognition as a tribe; the congressman received contributions from the lobbyist and the tribe in that instance.

But I think this somewhat misses the point. Yeah, Pombo got some campaign contributions. But he also got the chairmanship of the House Resources Committee. Power. Pombo got power.

From Thom Marshall at the Houston Chronicle, November 16, 20022:

For seven long, expensive years of litigation the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Tried to wring $250 million out of Houston financier Charles Hurwitz for the 1988 collapse of United Savings Association of Texas, a holding of Maxxam, where Hurwitz is the big boss.

The government spent some 12.5 million of our public money in the pursuit. Hurwitz spent $43 million on defense efforts that included some lobbying and public relations. Now the FDIC is asking the judge to dismiss their case.

It’s pretty safe to guess that at least a few of those $43 million passed through the hands of Jack Abramoff and close associates. Other Hurwitz monies, not included in that total, but perhaps a small “kickback” from the $480 million Headwaters deal paid for by taxpayers, presumably found their way back to Delay’s PACs, and those of his friends and allies. (Pombo didn’t set up his own “Rich PAC” until 2003.)

In December 2000, while the rest of the country was losing sleep over every report of hanging and pregnant chads, Doolittle & Pombo’s task force was held a one-day hearing on the FDIC’s case against Delay’s pal Hurwitz. Only FDIC employees were called to testify. The Task Force subpoenaed the FDIC’s investigative records. Their working hypothesis was contained in an official report (from the Houston Chronicle, June 16th 20013):

According to the task force, one politician intimately involved in those meetings was former California Democrat Rep. Dan Hamburg, who introduced a measure in the House of Representatives to authorize purchase of the Headwaters Forest. [Note: actually just a small fraction of the 63,000-acre primaeval, virgin stand.] The report also states that Leon Panetta, a White House chief of staff during the Clinton administration, wrote a letter suggesting regulators push for a debt-for-nature swap because federal budget restraints prohibited outright acquisition.

I can see the logic in this. But the FDIC insists that they were seeking a cash settlement, to partially offset the cost to taxpayers of the bailout. And, in fact, a portion of the forest hand been purchased in 1999 with public monies, so the premise that it couldn’t be done due to statutory limitations apparently didn’t hold water. The dynamic duo of Doolittle & Pombo had another idea entirely. The Chronicle quotes the report:

Federal banking regulators, swayed by an intense environmental lobbying campaign, willingly became integral to a “debt for nature” scheme to obtain redwood trees. In short, banking regulators provided the otherwise unavailable leverage for a federal plan to extort privately owned redwood trees.

Six months earlier, as the hearing was underway, Doolittle said this in a prepared statement (Houston Chronicle, 12/13/20004):

“This is what I will simply call extortion. This case is government corruption at its worst.”

The Task Force’s June report was inserted into the Congressional Record by Pombo, with internal FDIC docments appended. FDIC was not pleased. Sacramento Bee, Feb. 23, 20025 quotes their letter to then Resources Chairman James Hansen (R-UT):

We continue to have concerns about the motivations and fairness of the investigation.

Disclosure of privileged information in active litigation as in this case undermines the trial process and provides significant advantages to favored litigants.

Hurwitz’s friends in the Congress (and lest we forget, lobbyists & PR retainers) had intended the FDIC to drop its case against Hurwitz. But the FDIC continued on.

From the same SacBee article:

On Dec. 20, 2001 when dispirited members of Congress exhausted by anthrax scares and the war on terrorism were finally heading home, Rep. John Doolittle was wrapping up a war of his own.

The Rocklin Republican dropped into the Congressional Record 110 pages of subpoenaed government documents.



The [debt-for-nature swap] scheme was initiated, promoted and lobbied by radical Earth First! ecoterrorists,” Doolittle said.

Yeah, right. When I have occasion to think of Leon Panetta, Earth First! is definitely what pops to mind. Yipes!

“Our general counsel put the Committee on Resources on notice last July that releasing confidential FDIC documents would be a subordination of the legislative process,” said FDIC public affairs director Phil Battey.

“The release of documents came seven months after the report was drafted, and by a member who had left the committee over a year before,” he said. “We think it is a seamy abuse of the legislative process.

Ultimately, the FDIC dropped the prosecution in the fall of 2002. A few scant months later, at the turn of the year, Pombo had his Chairmanship. Did Pombo do Delay’s (Abramoff’s) dirty work to get his hands on some money? For campaign donations in the ballpark of $10k? Possibly, and likely there’s other money connections less easy to see. But it seems more likely he did it for the power.

Pombo was first elected to Congress in 1992, in a new district resulting from the 1990 Census. Before he became Resources Chair, he’d been trying for a decade to gut the Endangered Species Act. With Pombo, it’s a personal crusade. This powerful position would greatly increase his chances of forcing it through. And indeed, a noxious rework of the law has passed the House, and its fate now rests with the Senate. Blogger melvin on Daily Kos has written several good diaries on endangered species lately. Here’s a link to a second, and a third one.

Pombo’s done other favors for Delay and Abramoff, including for Abramoff’s client tribes. Matters relating to Abramoff’s clients in the Northern Marianas/Saipan, which never got out of committee. Which committee? Thats, right, Pombo’s Committee on Resources. (Photo Credit)

Sadly, in the year after Hill descended from her Luna, some wise guy with a chain saw vandalized that tree, likely to death. Or is that Wise Use guy? A vandal couldn’t take it down with a chainsaw, but could hack it up enough to kill it.

1“Hefley furious at choice for panel Committee chief backs property rights executives; House; environment; land; The West; U.S.,” The Denver Post 10 January 2003, sec. News Desk, p. A-01

2“Federal Goliath chases a fat cat,” The Houston Chronicle, 16 November 2002, sec. A, p 35 MetFront

3 “Redwood ‘scheme’ attacked;GOP-led panel wants Hurwitz case dropped,” The Houston Chronicle, 16 June 2001, sec. Business, pg 1

4“Congressman backs agencies eyeing Hurwitz,” The Houston Chronicle, 13 December 2000, sec. A, p. 35 Metfront

5“Furor follows Doolittle release of probe papers,” Sacramento Bee, 23 February 2002, sec. Main News, p. A1

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Photo Credit: "Falling an old-growth redwood, 1985." Photo by Karen Tillson for "Timber and Forests: Post war to Present," a California Local Legacies project.

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