By Associated Press - Tuesday, December 8, 2020

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) - A federal judge has ruled that allegations of political interference in the handling of a home development proposal in southern Arizona warrant the public release of several confidential records.

Steve Spangle, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official, claimed that politically motivated interference from Washington, D.C. overrode a science-based decision about the 28,000- home development in Benson, about 60 miles (97 kilometers) southeast of Tucson, The Arizona Daily Star reported.

U.S. District Judge Raner Collins of Tucson ruled Tuesday that the allegations call into question the entire agency’s decision-making on the development planned near the imperiled San Pedro River, justifying the decision to make the internal documents public.

Spangle had originally ordered a detailed analysis of the Villages at Vigneto’s environmental effects, including the effects of its planned groundwater pumping on the San Pedro River. But he later said that pressure he suspected came from then-Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt in August 2017 forced him to reverse his earlier decision.

Two weeks before that alleged interference, Bernhardt held a private meeting with Vigneto’s developer, a court record from the Justice Department shows.

Interior officials have denied the allegations, saying that nothing more occurred than an internal legal dispute over how best to enforce various Endangered Species Act requirements and that they received new information about the project.

The Justice and Interior departments resisted releasing the documents during the protracted litigation over a federal Clean Water Act permit for the project. Federal agencies usually argue the documents are not relevant to understanding an agency’s decision or that their release could chill officials from expressing candid views on controversies.

Collins’ ruling gives federal officials 30 days to release the documents.

“The department always complies with court rulings - and will do so here, as well,” Interior Department spokesman Ben Goldey said, adding that the documents will show Spangle’s decisions were not motivated by political pressure.

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