A River Ran Through Him

“The dam is a con.”

— Jake Gittes, Chinatown

As any fan of the movie Chinatown knows, in the American West one commodity reigns supreme. Not oil or timber, not gold or silicon chips, but water which flows its glistening way through the body politic, providing nourishment for corruption.

The latest politician caught in a crooked water grab is Colorado’s Ben Nighthorse Campbell, the Harley-riding former Democrat who jumped the divide to the Republicans in the wake of the 1994 elections. The move didn’t surprise observers who had followed Campbell’s career. The senator had modeled himself after Wayne Aspinall, an anti-environmental congressman from western Colorado who orchestrated the spasm of dam-building, mining, and logging in the West in the late 1950s and 1960s. Campbell shared Aspinall’s vision, but he’s never exhibited his grandiose malignity. Campbell’s politics have rarely risen above the petty and the personal.

In the summer of 1998, Campbell concocted a bill to transfer the federally-owned Vallecitos reservoir and dam, located in southern Colorado near Durango, to the privately-owned Pine River Irrigation District. As originally devised, the legislation would have sold the federal property to the ranching and development group for only $492,000, far below its market value. But by the time the bill had moved out of Campbell’s committee, even that small sum had been excised and both the reservoir and the dam were offered on behalf of we-the-people to the Pine River organization for free. In a speech on the Senate floor, Campbell said the transfer was needed in order to give citizens “local control” over their water supplies. The bill flew through the Senate unanimously on a voice vote on October 8, 1998, but stalled when the Congress adjourned before the House could take up the legislation.

All of this is standard political fare, excepting one factor: Campbell concealed from his colleagues the fact that he was to be a beneficiary of the scheme. The senator was a major shareholder in the Pine River Irrigation District. The Irrigation District is really a collection of downstream ranchers and developers, of whom Campbell is the primus inter pares, AKA top dog.

Campbell is one of the Pine River group’s largest landholders. His Nighthorse Ranch covers 267 acres of the Irrigation District. 90 percent of the landowners in the irrigation district own less than 100 acres. On his financial disclosure forms filed with the Clerk of the Congress, Campbell also modestly chose not to disclose the value of these holdings and the attendant water rights.

In theory, the US Senate has rules against this kind of brazen self-dealing. Senate Ethics Rule 37.4 prohibits a senator from introducing legislation “the principal purpose of which is to further his own pecuniary interest” or that of a “limited class” of which the senator or his family is a member.

But the Senate ethics committee didn’t see it that way and ended up giving Campbell a mild tap on the wrist for his malfeasance. Campbell sustained the tap bravely, telling a town meeting in Colorado, “These charges were bullshit.” Nor had the committee taken up the matter on its own initiative. It was forced to deal with it after a small but feisty Colorado environmental group, the Citizens’ Progressive Alliance, filed a complaint alleging numerous violations of senate rules by Campbell. Thus challenged, the senate ethics committee sat on the complaint for months, then in November 1999 this august body of moral arbiters sent the Citizen’s Group a letter dismissing the complaint. The committee used subtle reasoning to conclude that Campbell hadn’t “technically” violated senate rules. In effect, the committee concluded that the Irrigation District, of which Campbell is a leading owner, didn’t represent “a limited class.”

In the view of Phil Doe, a Littleton, Colorado environmentalist who filed the complaint for the Alliance, “the ethics committee letter was gibberish. In fact, it’s insulting. And it shows just how much of a club the senate is and how much each member can get away with.”

On the Hill, Campbell is widely regarded as a bully, a senate version of Rep. Dick Armey. But in the aristocratic upper chamber, Campbell doesn’t have Armey’s clout and is mistrusted by both Republicans and Democrats. “Campbell is stupid, uninterested, and mean,” a staffer for a Republican senator told me. “His staff spends most of its time cleaning up the messes he makes.” Campbell, who has little influence on the Hill, prefers to throw his weight around back in Colorado, targeting reporters, environmentalists, and federal employees. In 1996, managers at the Ignacio, Colorado offices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) lodged complaints with their superiors about Campbell’s intimidation of their resource managers.
This show of senatorial clout was part of an effort to get the BIA to divert more of its limited water supplies to Campbell’s ranch. Dan Breuninger, the head of the BIA’s Southern Ute Agency, told the Durango Herald in an October 1998 story, that the senator “threatened [BIA employees] with the loss of their jobs.”

Brueninger’s predecessor, Tony Recker, had also heard complaints about Campbell’s strong-armed tactics. “I’ve heard that the BIA area director has been talked to in a number of ways [by Campbell],” Recker said. When asked if he had been harassed by the senator, Recker clammed up. “I would rather not answer that question.”

Such oafish behavior apparently runs in the family. The Campbells’ neighbor, Jim Nall, claims he was threatened with a beating by Campbell’s son. Nall sought and received a restraining order against Campbell Jr. And Campbell Sr. doesn’t like the press much either. During a recent to Durango, the gallant senator met with the county council to discuss the Animas-La Plata dam and river diversion scheme and other legislative matters. Although Colorado sunshine laws require all government meetings to be open to the public, Campbell threw a fit when he espied a reporter from the Durango Herald planning to do his lawful job, covering the session. The senator demanded that the reporter be evicted from the room and the meeting held behind closed doors. Later Campbell said he didn’t have anything against that particular reporter, but that he thought the publisher of the paper was “a scumbag.”

During his senate floor speech, Campbell said the Pine River Irrigation District deal fit nicely with Al Gore’s reinventing government scheme and that it was motivated by a desire “to save precious taxpayer dollars.” The water rights alone are worth an estimated $2 billion. But that’s not all the Irrigation District gets. More than 500 acres of now public land surrounding the reservoir and the dam are part of the deal. These lands are valued at more than $100 million, and this doesn’t count lucrative oil and mineral rights to these lands that will also be transferred to the district. Plus, the Irrigation District will be given the right to charge license fees for boats and other recreational activities on the lake, which might put millions more into the District’s accounts.

Campbell seems perpetually to be operating in murky legal waters. In reviewing the master contract between the Irrigation District and the US government, Phil Doe discovered a provision that Campbell and the senate ethics committee have ignored. The language expressly forbids any member of congress from benefiting from the contract.

Over the past thirteen years, Campbell has received subsidized federal water from the Vallecitos Project, subsidies that may be illegal under the terms of the contract. The Bureau of Reclamation estimates that the value of the subsidies is at least $277,000. But if the water going to Campbell was sold on the open market it would likely fetch more than one million dollars.

Yet the senator’s benefits extend well beyond the water subsidies. Campbell personally lobbied the Department of Agriculture to provide low-interest loans and construction grants to the Irrigation District totaling $17 million. And he has bragged about his role in bringing home such bacon to his fellow shareholders. In a March 6, 1998 letter to the District, Campbell boasted that he had approached Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman about securing more money for the Pine River Irrigation District and added that, “my position on the Committee on Appropriation allows me to work directly on the funding issue.”

There is another aspect to this affair, which expands the level of intrigue and corruption much further, encompassing such environmental kingpins as Al Gore and Bruce Babbitt. Under the auspices of Gore’s National Performance Review (NPR), also known as the “reinventing government” initiative, the sell-off of federal assets has accelerated swiftly since 1993. Although cast as a way to downsize government, in practice, the Gore Performance Review has put valuable federal properties up for sale at garage sale prices. Often these assets end up in the hands of political cronies of the administration. Take one of the great rip-offs of the 1990s: the sale of the Elk Hills petroleum reserve to Occidental Petroleum, a company with deep ties to the Gore family. Elk Hills, located near Bakersfield, is one of the top ten oil reserves in the US outside of Alaska, containing over one billion barrels of oil. Gore praised the privatization of the site, which also provides crucial wildlife habitat.” With the sale of Elk Hills we are getting the government out of the oil business,” said Gore piously proclaimed, in a somewhat crude rendition of the functions of government: “We’re returning to the private sector those functions that can be more effectively performed in the private sector.”

In a similar vein, Bruce Babbitt helped engineer a huge federal/private land swap, involving his family’s ranch in northern Arizona, which will aid a sprawling theme-park development called Canyon Forest Village, located near the entrance to Grand Canyon Park. The Disneyland-style scheme is being built by Tommy DePaolo, one of Babbitt’s former legal clients.

Although the Clinton crowd scarcely holds Ben Nighthorse Campbell in high esteem, especially after he jumped ship to the Republicans after the 1994 elections, they needed Campbell’s support for another grandiose project: the Aminas-LaPlata water project, a multi-billion dollar scam now being hyped as a plan to give more water to the Southern Ute tribes. In fact the dam is designed to accelerate the development of the booming suburbs around Durango, Colorado. Babbitt once opposed the water impoundment project. Now he supports it as part of his legacy to the West (and a pay-off to his political patrons) and he summoned Campbell’s help in pushing the project through. “We’ve been flimflammed,” Ray Frost, a leader of the Southern Ute Tribe, told me. “Where will we ever come up with the $185 million to bring the water from the reservoir to the reservation? That water is meant for Durango.”

Campbell, by the way, served on both the Senate appropriations committee and the energy and natural resources committee, which has jurisdiction over all western water projects.

In the True West, that’s how the sweetest deals go down.

This article is excerpted from JEFFREY ST. CLAIR’s new environmental history, Born Under a Bad Sky (AK Press).

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: sitka@comcast.net.


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Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3