This is not the first time Utah Rep. Ken Ivory has been accused of selling "snake oil." But now his critics are calling him a crook.
In formal complaints filed Monday in three states, a watchdog group alleges Ivory, a West Jordan Republican, uses phony facts and arguments to scam local governments into giving taxpayer dollars to American Lands Council (ALC), the nonprofit he started in 2012 to champion the transfer of Western public lands to states.
The complaints focus on Ivory's practice of traveling the West, promoting land transfers to county commissioners and conservative groups and signing them up as dues-paying members of ALC.
"It's not simply a question of Rep. Ivory speaking his mind about what he thinks should happen. He is soliciting on the promise that if you give us money, we can get public land returned to your state," said attorney Anne Weismann, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign for Accountability. "More than half of the money they raise goes to him and his wife [Becky]."
Weismann submitted similar complaints to Utah, Montana and Arizona, asking their state attorneys general to investigate ALC's fundraising. She contends, as have numerous other critics, that all reliable legal and economic analyses of transferring public land to the states concluded the idea has no legal foundation and could prove costly to the receiving states.
Ivory dismissed the complaints as "a shameful and desperate political stunt" orchestrated by groups afraid of the broadening support land transfer is gaining.
"They can't tolerate political debate," Ivory said. "These groups spend decades opposing [land] management through litigation. Now we have a crisis. The health of the land is catastrophic and productivity is depressed."
Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes' office declined comment on the complaint, but noted that the office takes fraud allegations seriously.
"When our office receives a complaint, we assess whether there are reasons we cannot investigate a claim, such as a conflict of interest or lack of credible evidence," spokeswoman Missy Larsen said. "If the former, we will erect legal walls accepted under ethical rules to avoid the conflict and continue investigating the matter or we will refer the matter to another investigative agency."
Ivory has long accused the federal government of mismanaging the West's public lands to the detriment of forest and range health and of rural communities that have traditionally relied on access to public land for grazing, timber and minerals. Transfer backers claim the states can do a better job and increased revenue off the land would cover the cost of management.
Still, prominent critics maintain Ivory deploys faulty logic, distorts history and the law, and depends on dreamy assumptions.
From around the West, academics, sportsmen's groups, liberal politicians and conservationists have blasted Utah's Transfer of Public Lands Act, which Ivory shepherded through the 2012 legislative session and Gov. Gary Herbert signed. Critics say the law really aims to throw open Utah's landscapes to extractive uses and motorized access without the hassles of federal land-use planning and safeguards for endangered species, water quality, archaeological sites and other natural values.
The Utah law demanded the federal government hand over 30 million acres, administered by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, by the end of 2014.
With that deadline passed, Utah now is investing $2 million to advance the fight in the halls of Congress. And Ivory's ALC hired lobbyists to rally support for land-transfer legislation in other states, including Montana and Arizona.
According to Montana media reports, ALC may have run afoul of that state's ethics rules this year by hiring an aide to Montana state Sen. Jennifer Fielder to lobby in support of pro-transfer bills Fielder was sponsoring. The aide left his legislative post and Fielder's bills ultimately failed.
And for a second time, Arizona lawmakers passed a land-transfer bill this year, only to see it vetoed by a Republican governor. Gov. Doug Ducey did sign a bill authorizing a feasibility study and lawmakers adopted a resolution calling on the feds to "dispose" of public land.
As further proof the land-transfer movement has legs, Ivory points to hearings convened by Utah GOP Congressmen Chris Stewart and Rob Bishop, a bill advanced by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and resolutions pursued by lawmakers in four Southern states — Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina and Arkansas.
After three years, however, Utah remains the only Western state to have enacted a law demanding the transfer of public land.
"Proponents have seen little success over the last year," said transfer opponent Jessica Goad of the Center for Western Priorities. "They have had dozens of bills introduced, but only a handful passed. Economic studies have shown this is a fiscal loser for taxpayers. They have failed in state legislatures. They have failed in court.
"We see them turning to Congress as a final shot."
The watchdog complaints highlight Ivory's speaking tours to Montana, Utah and Arizona peddling "the fiction that the federal government is legally required to return public land to the state."
He has persuaded county commissioners to donate at varying levels.
Arizona's Apache and Mojave counties, for example, pledged at the "silver level," obliging them to a $5,000 membership fee. In this manner, ALC raised $209,000 in 2013 and Ivory pulled a $95,000 salary, according to tax filings.
"Rep. Ivory is a snake oil salesman, cloaked with respectability by his position as a legislator," said Weismann, a former federal lawyer and executive director of another ethics watchdog who launched Campaign for Accountability only last month. "Local government officials need to learn the truth about Rep. Ivory's claims before they are suckered into parting with taxpayer funds.
"He might as well be trying to sell them the Brooklyn Bridge."