A watchdog organization filed complaints against a Utah state representative on Monday for allegedly leading “an illegal scheme to defraud local government officials out of taxpayer funds” to finance a campaign to seize America’s public lands.
The complaints, filed by the Campaign for Accountability (CfA), request that the attorneys general of Utah, Arizona and Montana investigate state Rep. Ken Ivory (R) for “solicit[ing] funds from local officials, falsely claiming the federal government can be forced to transfer public lands to the states.” The complaints cite Ivory’s use of his role as president and founder of the American Lands Council (ALC), a Utah-based organization, to “enrich” his personal wealth and make “false or fraudulent representations to obtain money.”
Anne Weismann, executive director of the CfA, called Rep. Ivory a “snake oil salesman, cloaked with respectability by his position as a legislator,” in a press release.
“Ken Ivory has relied on his position and authority as a Utah state legislator to persuade unsuspecting local officials that if they contribute taxpayer dollars to his charity, they can help their states acquire federal land and increase revenues,” Weismann continued. “He might as well be trying to sell them the Brooklyn Bridge.”
The ALC, which Ivory founded to advocate for giving America’s public lands to state governments, pays both Ivory and his wife for their respective roles as the group’s president and communications director. Additionally, “more than 50 percent of the organization’s most recent budget,” which comes primarily from contributions made by local governments, “was spent enriching Rep. Ivory and his wife,” according to the press release announcing the complaints.
Ivory has denied the accusations of wrongdoing. In comments to the Associated Press, Ivory called the complaints shameful, saying they represented “bullying tactics to stifle legitimate political debate.” He said the group was his primary job and therefore it made sense that he was paid for his work. In addition, he said that his $40,000 yearly salary is “a small fraction of the salaries that environmental groups pay their top officers.”
In his role with ALC, Ivory travels across the West making presentations to convince local governments to become members, echoing the anti-federal government sentiments of outlaw rancher Cliven Bundy, who has also become a spokesperson for similar proposals to seize America’s public lands. According to CfA, Ivory claims that the federal government has “no legal right to the land,” and that the “return of the land would be a financial boon to the states.”
However, these proposals are deeply unpopular with Western voters, and are considered to be unconstitutional by some legal scholars. Moreover, they would place the extreme costs of managing the lands on state budgets, leaving local taxpayers with the bill, and potentially forcing states to raise taxes or sell of the lands for drilling, mining, and logging.
Controversy surrounding the ethics of ALC, Ivory and other associated lawmakers has been building in recent months. In May, Colorado Ethics Watch filed a complaint against the ALC for illegally lobbying “without registering in the state or reporting its income,” as reported by the Utah Political Capitol. In Montana, an aide for ALC spokesperson state Senator Jennifer Fielder (R) resigned for ethics violations after registering as a lobbyist for ALC.
With support from the oil and gas industry and the Koch-backed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), efforts to seize and sell off public lands have also gained attention at the national level. In April, seven Republican members of Congress, led by Utah Congressmen Chris Stewart and Rob Bishop, launched a “Federal Land Action Group” to develop legislation to give away America’s public lands. Senators Lisa Murkowski and Ted Cruz have also been vocal supporters in the Senate.
As the ethics inquiries into Rep. Ivory continue, the attorneys general have the opportunity to respond to CfA’s complaints by opening full investigations. According to the AP, representatives for the Utah and Montana attorneys general offices are reviewing the accusations.
Claire Moser is the research and advocacy associate with the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress. You can follow her on Twitter at @Claire_Moser.