FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Inside Dirk Kempthorne’s Closet

After serving for five years as Interior Secretary in the Bush Cabinet, Gale Norton, protégé of James Watt, quietly stepped down from her post overseeing the ruination of the American West. Norton’s sudden exit was almost certainly hastened by the widening fallout from the corruption probes into Jack Abramoff and the retinue of clients and the politicians and bureaucrats he then held on retainer. Abramoff, it will be recalled, performed some of his most extravagant shakedowns of clients, many of them destitute Indian tribes, seeking indulgences from the Interior Department.

Norton escaped being directly implicated in Abramoff’s crimes of influence peddling and bribery. But her former chief deputy, super-lobbyist J. Steven Griles, who oversaw oil and gas leasing on federal lands while on the payroll of his lobbying firm, became a key target of the Abramoff investigation and even shuffled off to federal prison for his crimes.

In a series of emails remarkable for their braggadocio and name-dropping, Abramoff advised his clients to donate money to an industry front group, founded by Norton, that promotes the privatization and industrialization of federal lands. In return, Abramoff bragged that he could offer them unfettered access to the top officials at the Interior Department, where their fondest desires would be a favorable hearing from people like Griles. In one instance, Abramoff claimed that Griles promised to block an Indian casino proposal opposed by one of Abramoff’s clients.

To replace Gale Norton, Bush called upon his old pal Dirk Kempthorne, the Idaho governor and former US Senator, who once cherished notions—fantastical though they may have been—of occupying the White House. In picking Kempthorne, Bush once again demonstrated the mindless consistency that would be one of his hallmarks as president. Far from moving to clean up an office sullied by corruption and inside-dealing, Bush tapped a man, who, over the course of his twenty years in politics, has taken more money from timber, big ag, mining and oil companies than any governor in the history of American politics.

Unlike many other western conservatives, Kempthorne doesn’t hit up the religious right for money. He goes straight to the corporations who want something done in Boise: JR Simplot, the potato king; Boise-Cascade, the timber giant; mining companies, such as ASARCO, Hecla, and FMC Gold; and the power companies. And Kempthorne gives them what they want. Kempthorne is Jack Abramoff without the middleman, decision-maker and lobbyist rolled into one.

Over the years, one of Kempthorne’s most loyal political patrons has been the Washington Group International (WGI), a Boise-based company that functions like a mini-Bechtel. During Kempthorne’s tenure as governor, WGI contributed more money to the politician than any other interest. The company got immediate returns on its investment. With an assist from Kempthorne, WGI won the lucrative contract to manage Idaho’s highways. The federal government scuttled the deal, saying the contract had been awarded illegally. The contract went up for bid again and, miraculously, Kempthorne once again picked WGI for the job.

With Idaho mired in a decade-long drought, water has become as contentious a political issue as oil in Alaska. Farmers, ranchers, and Idaho’s influential sports-fishing industry formed a rare coalition last year, intent on reforming Idaho’s archaic water laws to give more water to ranchers and salmon. The bill moved through the state legislature with surprising speed, much to the irritation of the Idaho Power Company, the state’s biggest water hog. Even Idaho Power’s threat to jack up electric rates by millions of dollars didn’t stall progress of the bill. So the company turned to Kempthorne, who flattened the bill with a veto. Idaho Power is Kempthorne’s second largest political contributor.

The phone giant Qwest is Kempthorne’s fourth biggest contributor. In 2004, Qwest approached Kempthorne with an urgent plea: the deregulation of pricing for landline phones in Idaho. When Kempthorne sent a message to the Idaho state legislature urging the body to bow to Qwest’s desires, it was met with a certain measure of hostility by Idaho residents, who viewed with some skepticism the phone company’s contention that such a move would save them money in the long-run. Even members of Kempthorne’s party balked and the bill went down to a narrow defeat. Over the next few months, Kempthorne disciplined recalcitrant Republicans and, when the session opened in early 2005, the Qwest bailout bill sailed through and was signed into law by the governor.

This is run-of-the-mill quid pro quo politics. But Kempthorne has been implicated in a more pungent scandal that may yet lead to criminal indictments of political and business associates: In 1999, a group of investors with close ties to Kempthorne fronted a scheme to build a satellite campus for the University of Idaho in downtown Boise. The project was named University Place and it called for the construction of three large buildings on prime real estate in the heart of the city.

Questions about the economic viability of the University Place project were swept aside by two of Kempthorne’s closest friends, Phil Reberger and Roy Eiguren. All three men were University of Idaho alums and members of the University of Idaho Foundation, the institution responsible for financing the development. At the time of the University Place deal, Reberger, who had managed every one of Kempthorne’s political campaigns, served as the governor’s chief of staff. He also had a seat on the foundation board and had been appointed by Kempthorne to the Idaho State Building Authority.

Eiguren, who is one of Kempthorne’s top individual donors, served as the Foundation’s vice-president at the same time that he worked as a lobbyist for the project in the state legislation. He is also a senior partner in Givens Purlsey, a top Boise law firm that represented Capital Partners, the California construction company picked to build the project.

Financing for the development was a problem from the beginning for the cash-strapped university. So Kempthorne, Reberger, and Eiguren hatched two schemes: first they would entice the Idaho legislature to approve $163 million in state-backed bonds to fund the construction. Then they would ensure that the Idaho Department of Water relocate into one of the buildings, as a prime tenant and a key element in the viability of the project.

Both of these maneuvers may have skirted state and federal laws. A 2003 investigation by the Idaho state attorney general’s office determined that the bid to move the Water Department into University Place may have been rigged from the top.

Meanwhile, the project proved to be a financial catastrophe, which compelled the university’s president, Robert Hoover, to resign in disgrace and left the University Foundation $26 million in debt. The debt was mysteriously repaid in a secret settlement earlier this year. The federal Department of Justice has quietly opened a criminal investigation into the affair.

Kempthorne’s nomination was momentarily blocked by Florida Senator Bill Nelson, who begged for the governor’s assurance that he not open the Florida coastline to oil drilling. Kempthorne told the senator he would make no such pledge. Indeed, he brayed that his top priority would be to expand drilling for oil across all federal lands, including off shore reserves. Nelson wobbled and the Democrats Maginot Line crumbled once again. Kempthorne sailed through the Interior committee without a vote against him and scarcely one probing question about the corruption scandal that shadows his every footstep. A week later the entire senate took a test vote on his nomination: only eight Democrats voted no. A few minutes later his nomination was approved on a voice vote without dissent.

And that’s how Dirk Kempthorne, one of the most environmentally hostile visigoths in the West, came to occupy the office once inhabited by the legendary swindler Albert Fall.

Kempthorne must feel right at home.

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.

 

 

Your Ad Here
 

 

 

 

More articles by:

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Bernie and the Sandernistas: Field Notes From a Failed Revolution. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter  @JSCCounterPunch

Weekend Edition
May 25, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Melvin Goodman
A Major Win for Trump’s War Cabinet
Andrew Levine
Could Anything Cause the GOP to Dump Trump?
Pete Tucker
Is the Washington Post Soft on Amazon?
Conn Hallinan
Iran: Sanctions & War
Jeffrey St. Clair
Out of Space: John McCain, Telescopes and the Desecration of Mount Graham
John Laforge
Senate Puts CIA Back on Torture Track
David Rosen
Santa Fe High School Shooting: an Incel Killing?
Gary Leupp
Pompeo’s Iran Speech and the 21 Demands
Jonathan Power
Bang, Bang to Trump
Robert Fisk
You Can’t Commit Genocide Without the Help of Local People
Brian Cloughley
Washington’s Provocations in the South China Sea
Louis Proyect
Requiem for a Mountain Lion
Robert Fantina
The U.S. and Israel: a Match Made in Hell
Kevin Martin
The Libya Model: It’s Not Always All About Trump
Susie Day
Trump, the NYPD and the People We Call “Animals”
Pepe Escobar
How Iran Will Respond to Trump
Sarah Anderson
When CEO’s Earn 5,000 Times as Much as a Company’s Workers
Ralph Nader
Audit the Outlaw Military Budget Draining America’s Necessities
Chris Wright
The Significance of Karl Marx
David Schultz
Indict or Not: the Choice Mueller May Have to Make and Which is Worse for Trump
George Payne
The NFL Moves to Silence Voices of Dissent
Razan Azzarkani
America’s Treatment of Palestinians Has Grown Horrendously Cruel
Katalina Khoury
The Need to Evaluate the Human Constructs Enabling Palestinian Genocide
George Ochenski
Tillerson, the Truth and Ryan Zinke’s Interior Department
Jill Richardson
Our Immigration Debate Needs a Lot More Humanity
Martha Rosenberg
Once Again a Slaughterhouse Raid Turns Up Abuses
Judith Deutsch
Pension Systems and the Deadly Hand of the Market
Shamus Cooke
Oregon’s Poor People’s Campaign and DSA Partner Against State Democrats
Thomas Barker
Only a Mass Struggle From Below Can End the Bloodshed in Palestine
Binoy Kampmark
Australia’s China Syndrome
Missy Comley Beattie
Say “I Love You”
Ron Jacobs
A Photographic Revenge
Saurav Sarkar
War and Moral Injury
Clark T. Scott
The Shell Game and “The Bank Dick”
Seth Sandronsky
The State of Worker Safety in America
Thomas Knapp
Making Gridlock Great Again
Manuel E. Yepe
The US Will Have to Ask for Forgiveness
Laura Finley
Stop Blaming Women and Girls for Men’s Violence Against Them
Rob Okun
Raising Boys to Love and Care, Not to Kill
Christopher Brauchli
What Conflicts of Interest?
Winslow Myers
Real Security
George Wuerthner
Happy Talk About Weeds
Abel Cohen
Give the People What They Want: Shame
David Yearsley
King Arthur in Berlin
Douglas Valentine
Memorial Day
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail