The federal government is the single biggest property owner in the country, particularly in the Western United States. And in many cases, the government owns land that is attractive to private interests for development or other economic purposes. Conversely, private local entities own land that is attractive to the feds, for instance private property within a park boundary. Current law allows the government and other parties to exchange these properties when they are considered to be of equal value.
There is an established process to determine whether the federal government is actually getting a good deal. It can take some time because the land value and environmental impacts have to be assessed and they have to be sure that taxpayers are not giving away land worth millions and getting peanuts in return. Even with these protections in place, there are legitimate concerns that the federal agencies become too close with the private parties who are more interested in getting their hands on Uncle Sam’s land than striking deals in the best interest of taxpayers.
Another route to a land exchange runs through Congress. The recent indictment of a sittign Congressman, however, shined a bright light on the problem of lawmakers picking the winners in land swaps with Uncle Sam. Here’s the scoop. A grand jury found that Rep. Rick Renzi (R-AZ) used his political position to pressure entities to purchase land from his business partner in exchange for his support for a proposed land exchange. In turn, his partner, James Sandlin, would use the proceeds from the sale to repay $733,000 he owed the Congressman.
This case clearly demonstrates the problem with making land exchange decisions in the political arena. According to the indictment, Renzi told one company, “no Sandlin property, no bill.” After he was rebuffed by that company he found another buyer – another land exchange supplicant – to pay $4.6 million for a 480-acre alfalfa field Sandlin purchased in 2003 for $1 million. In return Rep. Renzi fast tracked the buyer’s land exchange bill ahead of the other company. According to the indictment, Rep. Renzi had promised that the swap would get a “free pass” from the House’s Natural Resources Committee, the committee that is supposed to provide vigorous oversight of these types of projects.
The Renzi case may be extreme but it reveals real problems in using the legislative process to foist land exchanges on Uncle Sam.
Every year there are dozens of bills for proposed land deals, some of which are actively opposed by the administration. These bills are sponsored by the member of Congress who represents the district containing the property in question and they receive virtually no scrutiny. Clearly there is a conflict there. In addition, these bills generally move under the radar through an expedited process on the House floor that limits debate because they are deemed “non-controversial.”
The land exchange at the center of the Renzi indictment illustrates how corrupt actions by lawmakers can encourage poor management of federal land assets. The stakes are high enough that Congress should enact an immediate moratorium on legislated land exchanges until the entire administrative and legislative system can be reviewed to ensure that the taxpayer’s best interest are being served.