The facts reek of backroom deals and political quid pro quos. In a report to the Senate Finance Committee, Inspector General Earl Devaney said the department nearly tripled earlier estimates of the value of the mineral rights. President George W. Bush announced in May 2002 that the federal government would fork over $120 million in cash plus an undetermined amount in tax deductions to prevent the Colliers's privately held Collier Resources Co. from drilling for oil and gas on the 400,000 acres of land it owns in what he called the "critical parts of the Everglades.'' However, two previous government assessments valued the rights much lower, between $5 million and $68 million. Fortunately, it looks like the deal, receiving increased scrutiny, will be scuttled.
Devaney (attempting humor?) claims that "the intentions behind the attempted acquisition have always appeared to be firmly grounded in the department's righteous desire to protect the environmentally sensitive Everglades from potential harm." (Is the administration going to start buying mineral rights in Alaska next to prevent environmental harm?) The report says that Ann Klee, a Bush administration political appointee, helped reach an agreement with the Collier family shortly after Kell was named in January 2001 to administer the transition at the Interior Department between presidential administrations. Klee and two Interior Department lawyers, Barry Roth and Peter Schaumberg, relied on a private consultant's estimate that recommended the $120 million payment after soliciting several appraisals. What is odd is that all of the appraisals were lower. At least one career Interior Department official contested the high estimate.
As one would expect, everyone is suddenly being very tight-lipped about all of this. Tina Kreisher, communications director at the Interior Department, muttered something about how they "were trying very hard to protect the Everglades.'' Department spokesman Hugh Vickery wouldn't return phone. White House spokesman Taylor Gross said he was unaware of the report.
Devaney's report also says the government may have already owned the mineral rights because the Colliers sold the government surface rights for the same land in 1988. In addition, the report finds little evidence the rights had significant value.
So let's get this straight. The Bush administration has been caught redhanded giving away $70 or $80 million dollars of tax-payers' money to its wealthy patrons for overpriced mineral rights that it owned already, and then sweetening the deal with a tax deduction! And as a final slap in our face, it has used this as propaganda to offset its appalling environmental record.