Trump’s Hatchet Man and the Plot to Loot America’s Wilderness

November 26, 2017

About 30 employees were ushered into a conference room, where Cason announced that Kristin Bail, acting director of the BLM, would be replaced by Mike Nedd. The move itself wasn’t all that surprising: Bail, who came from a conservation background, had been appointed in the final days of the Obama administration to serve in a temporary capacity; Nedd, who had been assistant director for energy, minerals, and realty management since 2007, was viewed as better positioned to implement the new administration’s pro-industry agenda.

But the way Cason handled the meeting sent a stark message. According to two people who were present, he delivered what appeared to be hastily prepared remarks thanking Bail for her service but telling her that she was no longer needed in the position. One employee, who has since left the DOI, said it was unclear whether Bail had been told beforehand of her demotion. “It was one of the most awkward, disrespectful things I’ve ever seen,” the former employee said. The spectacle amounted to a kind of public dismissal—and a warning shot. The meeting ended as abruptly as it had begun, with employees left staring at their seats. By the end of the day, Bail was carrying her things out of her office in a box and looking for another place to sit.

Bail’s transfer was the opening salvo in an unprecedented restructuring of the DOI. Three months later, in what some department staffers now call the “Thursday-night massacre,” Cason sent memos to more than two dozen of the DOI’s highest-ranking civil servants informing them of reassignments; they had 15 days to accept the new positions or retire. The Office of the Inspector General is currently investigating how the transfers were determined; some employees believe they were designed to push out long-serving staff as part of a department-wide purge, and that climate scientists in particular were targeted.

Efficiently Running the Show at DOI

Cason, who once described himself as the department’s “regulatory czar,” has also overseen the dismantling of rules governing energy development on public lands. The DOI is poised to open up millions of acres to drilling and mining—from Utah’s red-rock country to the frigid, perilous waters off Alaska’s coast—while stripping away basic environmental protections and reducing transparency. Across the Trump administration, the new mantra is “energy dominance”—a vision of the world in which the United States will amplify its influence with a dramatic expansion of oil, gas, and coal production, whatever the environmental costs.

The axing of regulations and personnel is occurring with remarkable speed. In contrast to other federal departments mired by inept leadership in the Trump era, a small group of seasoned insiders has kept things humming along at the Department of the Interior, Cason chief among them. In the early months of the administration, according to one former DOI employee, there seemed to be few decisions, no matter how small, that didn’t cross his desk.

“From what I can tell, Jim Cason is running the show,” the former employee said. “I think he’s overseeing everything.” In addition to orchestrating the personnel reassignments and chairing the regulatory-reform task force that has rewritten or eliminated many Obama-era policies, Cason has been tasked with reviewing every grant or cooperative agreement of $100,000 or more, as well as any pending decisions with “nationwide, regional, or statewide impact.” He wrote the Federal Register notice announcing the department’s controversial review of 27 national monuments, and he has been granted virtual carte blanche to set policy as it relates to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Cason’s return to the DOI doesn’t surprise Jim Cubie, who was chief counsel to Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) in 1989, when Leahy oversaw an Agriculture Committee hearing on Cason’s nomination to a top environmental post in the George H.W. Bush administration. Cason’s track record so alarmed the committee that he was eventually forced to withdraw his name from consideration. Now he’s back in a position that doesn’t require Senate approval. “He’ll do a lot of damage,” Cubie predicted.

Cason is one of only a handful of political appointees with deep knowledge of the Department of the Interior. (The DOI declined to make Cason available for an interview.) He faithfully carried out the agendas of two of the most controversial interior secretaries in recent memory—James Watt and Gale Norton. From 1985 to 1989, during the Reagan administration, Cason was deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management; in that capacity, he worked closely with Steven Griles, a former coal lobbyist and the chief architect of some of the most environmentally destructive policies of the Reagan years. Griles helped to engineer the regulatory changes that facilitated mountaintop-removal mining, and he interfered with a Fish and Wildlife Service report on the potential environmental damage caused by coastal drilling. As head of the DOI’s Office of Surface Mining in the early 1980s, Griles also failed to collect tens of millions of dollars in civil penalties owed by companies that had broken environmental laws.

Throughout this period, Cason served as Griles’s right-hand man, according to a former congressional staffer familiar with his record. “He learned well at Griles’s knee about how to get stuff done,” the staffer said. The two became close friends; Griles was best man at Cason’s wedding in 1990. And in 2001, when Griles returned to the department under George W. Bush after more than a decade of lobbying for coal companies and other special interests, Cason joined him as his associate deputy. According to a former DOI employee who worked with Cason during the Bush administration, “Griles would have whatever idea, and Jim would figure out how to get it implemented. He’s quite effective at doing that. He was known as Griles’s hatchet man.”

But unlike Griles, who was sentenced to 10 months in prison after lying to Congress about his ties to the disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, Cason has largely avoided the public eye. His personal style is exceedingly restrained, particularly in contrast with more flamboyant and controversial colleagues like Griles, who was known for being a brash talker with a volatile temper. Cason has a monotone way of speaking; he often dresses in a subdued blue suit and tie and seems to go out of his way to be agreeable. In an appearance on C-SPAN in 2005, as the Abramoff investigations were gaining momentum, a caller described Cason as a “Republican toady” and attacked the DOI for its policies toward Native Americans. Cason replied evenly, “OK, well, that’s certainly a good point of view too.”

Even when not behind the scenes at the DOI, Cason maintained a low profile. He’s never worked as a registered lobbyist. During the Clinton administration, he lived in Western New York and was vice president of risk management at a company that manufactures ceramic-fiber products for industrial applications. More recently, he’s done consulting work for Booz Allen Hamilton and Kelly Anderson & Associates (now KAA Federal Solutions), a business-management firm that works with federal and industrial clients. On his financial-disclosure form, submitted in July, Cason provided so few details about the contracting work he’d done with the Quapaw tribe in Oklahoma that, after queries by ProPublica, the DOI was forced to submit a revised version. In it, Cason revealed that over a five-month period in 2016, he’d earned $50,000 doing “research” for the tribe. (The department’s ethics lawyer called the omission an “oversight.”)

KAA chief executive officer Tim Vigotsky, who hired Cason in 2012, describes him as a policy wonk who knows the DOI better than anyone. “There’s not a lot of flash,” Vigotsky said. “He works long hours—whatever it takes.” Because Cason wasn’t registered as a lobbyist at Booz Allen or Kelly Anderson, it’s unclear who his clients in the energy sector might have been. Vigotsky called Kelly Anderson’s list a “who’s who” of the industry but wouldn’t reveal the names of private clients. Much of the firm’s work involves providing assistance to companies seeking federal contracts. On his résumé, Cason stated that, in addition to providing consulting support for Native American, commercial, and federal clients, he helped to “network access to government officials.”

A window into what has otherwise been a veiled career opened in 1989, when Cason was nominated to serve as assistant secretary for natural resources and environment at the Department of Agriculture under George H.W. Bush. Few people had ever heard of Cason, who was only 35 when his confirmation hearings took place. The position is typically filled by noncontroversial policy experts, and the hearings are rarely the stuff of high-stakes political theater. But Cason’s nomination was unusually contentious, in large part because of his former boss—James Watt, one of the most polarizing and unpopular interior secretaries ever to hold the position.

A Watt Acolyte

As the DOI’s head under Ronald Reagan, Watt was known for his staunch support of property rights and for his attempts to sell millions of acres of public lands to drilling and mining interests; he resigned in 1983, after stating that a coal advisory commission he’d established was balanced because it included “a black…a woman, two Jews, and a cripple.” In his opening remarks at Cason’s hearing, Senator Leahy wasted little time in drawing a parallel between Cason and Watt. “Frankly, we do not need a James Watt clone in this position,” Leahy said. Jim Cubie, Leahy’s counsel, said they’d heard from a number of sources that “this guy’s going to be a disaster…. Anybody who was a Watt acolyte was trouble.”

In written testimony, Cason said he’d barely gotten to know Watt and “could not fairly or knowledgeably compare or contrast our philosophies.” Yet Cason revealed that his philosophy was in fact closely aligned with Watt’s when he faced a series of questions about his decision to approve the transfer of tens of thousands of acres of public land at below-market rates in 1986. The episode involved the sale of oil-shale claims to energy companies at $2.50 an acre; weeks later, some of the same land was sold to private developers at 800 times the original price, reaping a windfall of $37 million for the energy companies. Asked by Senator Kent Conrad (D-ND) whether the sale was “in the public interest,” Cason replied: “I think it is in the public interest to assure that we properly address private-property rights.” In that single sentence, Cason summed up Watt’s worldview.

But the hearing wasn’t only a referendum on Watt—it demonstrated that Cason put his own stamp on a number of decisions that heavily favored industry. Cason’s involvement in the alleged suppression of a BLM report on the dangers to the spotted owl dominated press accounts of the hearings. At the time, there was great concern among conservationists that the logging of old-growth forests in Oregon would lead to the owl’s demise. Indeed, several studies carried out in the 1980s demonstrated that the forests were key to the species’s survival. The BLM report commissioned by Cason found that the spotted owl would be imperiled if logging continued. Cason later claimed that the report didn’t live up to the department’s scientific standards—but several individuals involved in the review testified that Cason simply disagreed with their conclusions and had asked the DOI to bury the report. After news of the report leaked to the press, Cason had the DOI release what many felt was a watered-down version of the original. (“Jim Cason is a seasoned Department of the Interior official who brings decades of government, private sector, and personal experience to the position,” a DOI spokesperson wrote in response to questions about his record, including the owl report. “We are lucky to have him.”)

Cason had also pushed through a series of industry-friendly measures in the final weeks of the Reagan administration. He lowered the royalties paid for coal mined on public lands; authorized a rule that made it possible for companies to mine in national parks or on Forest Service land (a rule considered so over the top that it was quickly withdrawn); traveled to Colorado to encourage—yet again—the transfer of thousands of acres of oil-shale claims at rock-bottom prices; and brokered an agreement with several major oil and gas companies that essentially undermined the federal government’s authority to audit royalty payments. Not only did Cason reach the latter deal without consulting state or tribal officials, whose constituents stood to lose out on millions in annual payments, but he also signed the agreement on letterhead from the industry’s attorneys. R. Max Peterson, then the executive vice president of the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, described Cason’s actions as “an inexcusable betrayal of the public trust.”

Even Republican members of the traditionally conservative Senate Agriculture Committee had their doubts. Summing up Cason’s years at the DOI, Indiana Senator Richard Lugar said: “The whole department, and yourself as part of that department, were overly solicitous of business and industry points of view.” Several weeks later, realizing that he didn’t have enough votes to secure the nomination, Cason withdrew his name.

Energy Dominance from Shale, Oil, Natural-Gas and Clean-Coal Reserves

All of that must have seemed like a distant memory this past summer, when Cason addressed a roomful of industry executives at the Colorado Oil and Gas Association’s annual energy summit in Denver. He spoke alongside Gale Norton, who had been the interior secretary for much of George W. Bush’s administration. Cason’s current post is the same one he held under Norton—but this time around, according to interviews with more than a half-dozen current and former DOI employees, he wields significantly more power. (Norton, who took a position with Royal Dutch Shell after leaving office in 2006, now runs her own consulting firm—Norton Regulatory Strategies—and works closely with the oil and gas industry.)

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