The Rise and Fall of Richard Pombo
The banner stretched across the entrance to the Crobar—a trendy New York nightclub—proclaimed, “Welcome to the Pombo-Palooza.” At the door, members of the Rockettes handed out cowboy hats to the A-list of invited guests. Inside, a model clad in rhinestone hot pants and a cleavage-enhancing top that might have chastened a Hooters waitress rode a mechanical bull. On the stage, the Charlie Daniels Band cut loose with fiddle-driven Southern funk as lobbyists and lawyers, politicians and tycoons danced the two-step and drank iridescent blue martinis.
Such was the scene in 2003 at Congressman Rick Pombo’s coming out party. The young legislator from Tracy, California had just been appointed the new chairman of the House Resources Committee. At forty-two, he was the youngest chairman on Capitol Hill. George W. Bush couldn’t attend the hoedown but he sent a herogram congratulating the congressman he calls “Marlboro Man.”
That night money flowed faster than champagne. Before Charlie Daniels had finished his first set, Pombo’s campaign war chest had been fattened by more than $250,000, courtesy of an assortment of real estate barons, oil and mining company executives, timber lobbyists, and casino operators. Many of these contributors would turn out to be the cream of lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s clientele. (Abramoff now faces many years in prison for his corrupt dealings.) And that was just their opening bid. Over the next two and half years, Pombo’s political accounts would be fattened by an additional $2 million from an ever-expanding retinue of lobbyists, real estate barons, and corporate PACs.
The arc of Richard Pombo’s career is an unlikely success story. He is a college drop-out from a dusty ranching town in California’s Central Valley. He showed no particular flair for politics during his early days and, when given the chance, nearly bankrupted the family dairy ranch. Politics was a last resort, and even in this arena Pombo’s future seemed uncertain: he was not a particularly gifted public speaker, nor possessed of an especially engaging personality.
Pombo likes to describe himself as a rancher. He strutted into congressional hearings in cowboy boots and a Stetson. He owns a ranch, but spends less time on it than Bush does clearing sagebrush in Crawford. Pombo did upload photos of himself on his website constructing a pink barn for his children’s pet pigs over a Christmas break. Pombo used to sport a thin Brokeback Mountain moustache. These days he brandishes a manly goatee. The new growth was detected shortly after the movie premiered.
Western myths aside, the Pombo family didn’t make their fortune selling milk from their small herd of dairy cows. The Pombos got rich by buying up ranchlands and subdividing them into ranchettes for Bay Area commuters. As a member of congress, Pombo pushed for freeway projects that caused the value of properties owned by his family to soar.
Some thought that young Richard might get a job selling real estate for his uncle, who owned one of the largest brokerages in the Central Valley. But Pombo never passed the real estate exam.
Politically, however, his uncle proved to be a huge help. The red and white Pombo real estate signs are ubiquitous across the congressional district. Thus, Rick Pombo, a tubby and slick-haired man of Portuguese descent, enjoyed huge name recognition before he ever considered running for office.
Pombo has spun various tales about the event that prompted him to run for Congress. For years he claimed that he was enraged by plans to turn an abandoned railroad near his family ranch into a bicycle trail which—he fumed—would lead to the entire valley being designated a “viewshed” where development would be restricted. Later, Pombo said he ran for office because the family ranch had been designated “critical habitat” for the San Joaquin kit fox, the world’s smallest wild canid and an endangered species.
Both stories are embellished to the point of fantasy. Pombo’s ranch was never at risk from either action. The allegation about the kit fox driving his family from their homestead is particularly outlandish, since the feds have never designated critical habitat for the tiny vulpine. Real ranchers look kindly on the kit fox, since it feeds almost exclusively on rodents regarded as crop pests. In any event, the habitat designation wouldn’t have restricted ranching operations, but developments. And, indeed, that’s precisely what ticked off Pombo. He was forced to pay $5,137 into a regional conservation fund as an impact fee for houses he built on his “ranch.” The houses went up; kit fox populations went down.
In 1992 Pombo won his seat in Congress after narrowly defeating Democrat Patty Garamendi, daughter of the hugely unpopular state insurance commissioner John Garamendi.
In 1996, Pombo published a book-length screed against the Endangered Species Act and environmentalists. Titled This Land is Your Land, the book was ghost written by rightwing columnist Joseph Farrah. Woody Guthrie wouldn’t recognize many of the sentiments set forth in the Pombo-Farrah tract, which called for the dismantling of the Endangered Species Act and disposal of public lands to private interests. Though not a bestseller, the book acquired the allure of a Gnostic gospel among the “Wise Use” crowd, whose concept of wise use derives from God’s commandment to Adam in the book of Genesis to pillage the earth’s natural resources as he thinks fit. The book put Pombo on the ledger as an apex berserker in what Ron Arnold, the P.T. Barnum of the Wise Users, has billed as the War Against the Greens.
But the Wise Use Movement’s backing of Pombo certainly doesn’t explain his rise to power. The Wise Users have had their congressional champions in the past, notably Helen Chenoweth, of Idaho. But they’ve tended to labor in obscurity, deemed as coarse Visigoths even in their own party. For his first few years, Pombo toiled in a similar kind of isolation. His speeches at property rights confabs denouncing Bruce Babbitt as an agent of the United Nations and the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone as an example of “political paganism” garnered only the occasional comical notice in the gossip pages of the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. Pombo’s annual introduction of bills to dismantle the Endangered Species Act rarely attracted more than a few dozen co-sponsors and usually went extinct without a hearing.
In Bushtime, though, Pombo got on a roll. His McCarthyesque hearings on the dangers of “eco-terrorism,” where environmentalists were hauled up before the House Resources Committee and forced to endure harangues from both Democrats and Republicans, culminated in the FBI’s arrest of nearly a dozen environmental activists on charges of sabotage, conspiracy, and arson. Rod Coronado, an editor of the Earth First! Journal and probably the most famous animal rights activist in North America, was also arrested for giving a speech in 2003 at UC San Diego where he demonstrated how to make and use a Molotov cocktail.
Pombo’s scheme to sell off millions of acres of federal forest and range lands, once considered political poison, was adopted by the Bush administration in the fall of 2006, with a proposal to dispose of 200,000 acres of public land to mining and timber companies and real estate speculators, all in the name of funding rural schools.
In 2005, Pombo came close to realizing his wildest dream when the House of Representatives passed his bill to annihilate the Endangered Species Act by a hefty margin of 229 to 193. Soon after this mighty triumph, the Washington Times announced the onset of “Pombomania” among young Republican ultras.
Ironically, Pombomania probably owed more to his enemies than to the shock troops of the property rights movement. Plucking bellicose quotes from his book and his stump speeches, the Sierra Club turned Pombo into the personification of environmental villainy. In dozens of mass fundraising appeals, Pombo was presented as the new James Watt, the dark agent of the looting of the public estate. Pombo glories in his role. “I’m their bogeyman,” Pombo gloats. “They need me to raise money.”
The Sierra Club’s threat inflation of Pombo almost certainly factored into Tom DeLay’s decision to catapult the congressman over the heads of more senior members to the chair of the Resources Committee, one of the most prized seats in Congress.
Pombo also got help from the Democrats. His rewrite of the Endangered Species Act, which eliminates the designation of “critical habitat” for listed species, sets in legal stone many of the practices implemented administratively by his former nemesis Bruce Babbitt when he served as Clinton’s Interior Secretary.
In Clintontime, Babbitt simply refused to designate critical habitat for dozens of at-risk animals and plants, forcing environmental groups into court to compel the Fish and Wildlife Service to live up to its legal obligations. The suits were slow in coming while Clinton was in office, but they began to proliferate after Bush came to power.
Bush and Pombo used those lawsuits, most of which resulted in favorable verdicts for the greens, to charge that the law was outdated and was being exploited by militant environmentalists and litigation-happy lawyers. The Bush-Pombo team got some unexpected help from one of the liberal lions of the House, George Miller, the former chair of the House Natural Resources Committee. In the summer of 2006, Miller pronounced that the law needed to be reworked.
“There is a recognition that the current critical habitat arrangement doesn’t work for a whole host of reasons,” said Miller. “There are some in the environmental community who think the answer is just no to any change, and I think that’s a problem.”
At those words from a politician once regarded by greens as the most enlightened member of the House, critical habitat went extinct without a fight. There were warning signs of Miller’s impending collapse. Shortly after the Democrats lost control of the House, Miller gave up his leadership position on the Resources committee. Friends said he was too tired to fight the likes of Don Young and Pombo.
Another congressional Democrat, Dennis Cardoza, Representative from California’s 18th District, worked closely with Pombo to craft his assault on ESA—an assault that includes a provision that is likely to bankrupt the U.S. Treasury faster than Halliburton’s Iraq contracts. Pombo’s bill instructed the federal government to pay off developers for not violating the law. Under this rule, the feds would have to compensate property owners for value of a “proposed use” for land inhabited by endangered species. It’s a shakedown provision. A Central Valley rancher could propose to build a casino in kit fox habitat, and the feds would be required to pay out millions to keep them from building it. Then the next year the same landowner could come back with new plans for a golf course and get another payoff.
Sound absurd? A similar law was passed by the voters of Oregon in 2004. The law was initially stuck down by a state court as unconstitutional, but a few months later the Oregon Supreme Court reinstated the statute, which virtually wipes out the state’s vaunted land-use planning regulations.
Fortunately, Pombo’s bill ran aground in the Senate, where Lincoln Chaffee, the Republican from Rhode Island, has vowed to keep the Endangered Species Act from being “Pomboized.” (It may be a coincidence but one of the only zoos in the country that maintains a kit fox exhibit is the Chaffee Zoological Gardens in Fresno.)
Chaffee stood up against his fellow Republican, but you didn’t hear similar objections from California’s senior Senator Dianne Feinstein. Feinstein and Pombo have worked closely over the years on everything from water policy in the Central Valley (more water for farms, less for salmon) and logging in the High Sierra near Lake Tahoe. The real estate caucus sticks together.
During his campaign, Pombo targeted other laws for obliteration in the coming few years. At the top of his hit list was the National Environmental Policy Act, the law that requires Environmental Impact Statements for all federal projects.
It was a dramatic run, but, alas, Pombo did not survive to witness the promised land. The ethical noose fatally tightened around his political career.
Back in the 1990s, Pombo made rich sport of attacking Hillary Clinton for her role in the Travelgate affair. But it turned out that Pombo’s office had its own travel-related problems. Pombo’s political Svengali was a man called Steven Ding, who had long served as his chief of staff. When Pombo landed the Resource Committee chair, he also made Ding chief staffer for the committee. Ding was double dipping, getting paid by both the committee and Pombo’s office.
Ding lives in Stockton and traveled back to California from DC every week. The House Resources Committee picked up the tab. From 2003 through 2004, Ding billed the committee $87,000 in commuter charges. Some of those visits may not have been to see Mrs. Ding. Even though he had two positions with Pombo, Ding enjoyed enough free time to also hire himself out as a private consultant to corporations and lobbyists seeking his insider knowledge. In 2005, Ding earned $57,000 in outside consulting fees. On four occasions, the House Ethics Committee has cited Ding for low-balling or failing entirely to report such outside remunerations.
Ding wasn’t alone though. He was merely traveling down a trail that was blazed by his boss. Each year Pombo’s office spends nearly twice as much on travel as do the offices of the adjacent congressional districts. The biggest freeloader was Pombo himself.
In the summer of 2005, Pombo took his family on a two-week vacation, touring the national parks in a rented RV. He sent the $5,000 bill to the Resources Committee. When Rep. Ellen Tauscher questioned the reimbursement, Pombo said he was doing research. And perhaps he was. A few weeks after he returned from his grand tour, Pombo’s office leaked a white paper to the Washington Times calling on the Bush administration to sell off a dozen national parks.
What about Pombo’s wife, Annette, whose recipe for Apple-Walnut Crosscut Pie was the most popular page on the congressman’s website? Surely, Annette’s travel expenses shouldn’t have been covered by the committee? It turns out that since 2001 Pombo has paid his wife and his brother at least $465,000 in consulting fees from his campaign fund.
This wasn’t Pombo’s first infraction. In 2004, he used office funds to pay for the printing and mailing of a flier to a nationwide list of property rights fanatics urging them to write letters in support of Bush’s plan to allow snowmobilers to run amok in Yellowstone Park. The Ethics Committee ruled that the flier violated the rules on franking and slashed his mail budget. Later that year, Pombo gave all of the Republican staffers on the Resources Committee a paid vacation in October so they could disperse across the country to work in GOP election campaigns—another ethical foul.
In October 2005, the Center for Public Integrity reported that Pombo had taken two overseas junkets to New Zealand and Japan. Both trips were paid for by a group called the International Foundation for Conservation of Natural Resources, which receives funding from bioengineering firms such as Monsanto and also from pro-whaling interests. Pombo did not report the trip on his income tax form, though the IRS considers overseas junkets gifts on which taxes must be paid.
“I really have no idea what is going on with that foundation,” said Pombo, when confronted with the report. “Obviously I will have my accountant check into this.” Even by the high standards of congressional evasiveness, this was a spectacular bout of memory loss. Pombo was a founder of the International Foundation for Conservation of Natural Resources and served as its chairman until July of 2005.
Then there’s the Jack Abramoff connection. Like Bush, Pombo pretended to have only the foggiest recollection of the beleaguered super lobbyist. “I think I met the guy a few times,” Pombo said last month. “But he never stepped foot in my office. Never lobbied me about anything.”
Unfortunately for Pombo, Abramoff left a distinct paper trail across Capital Hill, with much of the forensic evidence found in the chambers of the Resource Committee, where the business of his clients was so often decided. Duane Gibson, a former top staffer on the Resource Committee, left the committee to work in Abramoff’s firm, where he represented mining companies and Indian tribes. Gibson helped Pombo draft a legislative rider that would have transferred thousands of acres of prime federal lands to mining companies. Three months before Pombo inserted the measure in the budget bill, Gibson hosted a $1,000-a-head fundraiser for the congressman.
In 2002, Pombo went to bat for Charles Hurwitz, owner of Maxxam and infamous looter of redwoods and of Savings & Loans. Pombo and Tom Delay intimidated federal regulators into dropping an investigation of Hurwitz’s banking practices. Most of the legal footwork was done by Gibson, who later came under legal scrutiny by federal prosecutors. Hurwitz, of course, was a top contributor to Pombo’s campaign war chest.
Republicans were so worried about Pombo’s ethical dilemmas that they recruited an old war-horse to challenge him in the primary: Pete McCloskey. McCloskey is a former congressman and a sponsor of the original version of the Endangered Species Act. McCloskey called Pombo the “Duke Cunningham of the environment,” a reference to the now imprisoned congressman from San Diego who memorialized his menu of bribes on his congressional stationery.
Pombo fended off McCloskey, but he couldn’t overcome the changes in his district that he had done so much to facilitate, as more and more Bay Area commuters (and Democratic voters) moved onto subdivisions sprouting up on the old ranches and farms of the Central Valley. This merciless demographic did him in. Sprawl bites the hand that feeds it.
Rich Pombo frittered away one of the safest seats in the House. He might have had a better chance of surviving if he had shaved the goatee and returned to that suggestive moustache.
This essay is excerpted from Born Under a Bad Sky: Notes from the Dark Side of the Earth by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR (AK Press, 2008).
JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon. His newest books, Born Under a Bad Sky and Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland (co-edited with Joshua Frank) are just out from AK Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.