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TUES: GOP launches investigation into Haaland's connection to NM activists, + More

Nov 05, 2023Nov 05, 2023

US House panel investigates ties between US Interior secretary, environmentalists — Susan Montoya Brown, Associated Press

Republican members of the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources are raising concerns about ties between Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and an Indigenous group from her home state that advocates for halting oil and gas production on public lands.

The members on Monday sent a letter to Haaland requesting documents related to her interactions with Pueblo Action Alliance as well as those of her daughter, Somah, who has worked with the group and has rallied against fossil fuel development.

The request comes just days after Haaland decided to withdraw hundreds of square miles in New Mexico from oil and gas production for the next 20 years on the outskirts of Chaco Culture National Historical Park — an area considered sacred by some Native American communities.

U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, the Arkansas Republican who chairs the committee, said Congress has a duty to oversee federal agencies and the cabinet secretaries who lead them and that what he called Haaland's "alliances" present potential conflicts of interest.

"The committee is calling on Secretary Haaland to shed light on these ties between her family and this extremist group so we can determine the potentially unethical way these types of decisions are being made throughout the federal bureaucracy," Westerman said in a statement.

The Interior Department had no comment on the letter, agency spokesperson Melissa Schwartz said.

Haaland — who is from the Laguna Pueblo and is the first Native American to lead a Cabinet agency — has said the work to protect land around Chaco has been ongoing for decades and that numerous public meetings and consultations with tribal leaders were a part of the process.

Julia Bernal, executive director of Pueblo Action Alliance, called the Chaco decision a compromise because the group has been pushing for more expansive protections.

"The Alliance has urged the Biden administration to protect ancestral lands and address the climate emergency by phasing out fossil fuel extraction on public lands," Bernal told The Associated Press in an email. "Chairman Westerman's allegations are a misguided attempt to deflect attention from the fossil fuel industry's role in the climate crisis and the destruction of ancestral lands."

Industry groups have suggested that Pueblo Action Alliance, Somah Haaland and others have influenced Haaland, who as secretary oversees an agency that manages more than 380,000 square miles of public lands.

The Western Energy Alliance says that Haaland and her senior officials have granted special access to Pueblo Action Alliance and its allies and have helped the group lobby members of Congress and the Interior Department on issues before the agency, including oil and gas leasing.

"Secretary Haaland has conflicts of interest that simply wouldn't be tolerated if they were on behalf of oil and natural gas companies and should not be tolerated when they're on behalf of environmental special interests," Western Energy Alliance President Kathleen Sgamma said Monday.

Among the documents the House panel is requesting are copies of the ethical pledges signed by Haaland and any waivers that have been granted to her.

The request also calls for communications between the secretary and Somah Haaland related to oil and gas leasing on federal lands, Pueblo Action Alliance, efforts to lobby members of Congress or other government officials about withdrawing federal land from development and a protest at the agency's headquarters in October 2021.

Albuquerque city council considers weakening mayor's role — Albuquerque Journal, KUNM News

Albuquerque City Councilors took up a proposal Monday night that would restructure the city's government, substantially altering the role of the mayor.

The Albuquerque Journal reports the proposal from Councilors Renee Grout and Louie Sanchez would move the state's largest city from a "strong mayor" to a "weak mayor" form of governance — as they have in Rio Rancho. It would mean much of the mayor's administrative duties would go instead to a city manager appointed by the council.

Members voted 5-4 to amend the proposal, giving the "weak" mayor a vote on the Council. Originally, the mayor would have only been able to break ties.

Its sponsors say the change would lead to a more stable, efficient and transparent municipal government.

A spokesperson for Mayor Keller says that restructuring the government this way would limit checks and balances by giving too much power to the Council and an unelected administrator.

The Council plans to take the city charter back up in about two weeks, on June 21. If six of its nine members approve it, it’ll be placed on the ballot for Albuquerque voters to weigh in.

Officials confirm New Mexico's 1st case of fungal disease of hibernating bats — Associated Press

White-nose syndrome, a fungal disease of hibernating bats, has been confirmed in New Mexico for the first time, authorities said Monday.

The state Department of Game and Fish said samples from two live bats and two deceased bats were collected in late April from caves managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management in Lincoln and De Baca counties.

Those two counties are far from Curry County, which is home to Carlsbad Caverns.

Game and Fish officials said the two dead bats were confirmed with white-nose syndrome — a fringed myotis in Lincoln County and a cave myotis in De Baca County.

They said white-nose syndrome is caused by an invasive fungal pathogen that was previously detected in New Mexico in 2021, but evidence of the bat disease wasn't confirmed in New Mexico until now.

Authorities said the disease has killed millions of bats in North America since 2006.

A powdery, white fungus grows on the skin of hibernating bats, often on the face, leading to irritation and dehydration.

That causes bats to stop hibernating early and exhaust fat stores they need to survive the winter, often leading to death.

BLM will continue to test and implement prevention measures such as restricted access to affected caves to minimize the spread of the disease in New Mexico.

Neither the fungus nor the disease affects humans.

California investigating whether DeSantis involved in flying asylum-seekers from Texas to Sacramento— Tran Nguyen, Olga Rodriguez, Associated Press

Officials were investigating Tuesday whether Florida's Gov. Ron DeSantis was behind a flight that picked up asylum-seekers on the Texas border and flew them — apparently without their knowledge — to California's capital, even as faith-based groups scrambled to find housing and food for them.

About 20 people ranging in age from 21 to 30 were flown by private jet to Sacramento on Monday, California Attorney General Rob Bonta said. It was the second such flight in four days.

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg and faith-based groups who have been assisting the migrants scheduled a news conference Tuesday morning.

Meanwhile, California Gov. Gavin Newsom lashed out at DeSantis as a "small, pathetic man" and suggested the state could pursue kidnapping charges.

DeSantis and other Florida state officials were mum, as they were initially last year when they flew 49 Venezuelan migrants to the upscale Massachusetts enclave of Martha's Vineyard, luring them onto private jets from a shelter in San Antonio.

DeSantis, who is seeking the Republican nomination to run for president, has been a fierce critic of federal immigration policy under President Joe Biden and has heavily publicized Florida's role in past instances in which migrants were transported to Democratic-led states.

He has made the migrant relocation program one of his signature political priorities, using the state legislative process to direct millions of dollars to it and working with multiple contractors to carry out the flights. Vertol Systems Co., which was paid by Florida to fly migrants to Martha's Vineyard, appears to be behind the flights to Sacramento on Monday and last Friday, Bonta said, adding that the migrants were carrying "an official document from the state of Florida" that mentions the company. The company didn't respond to an email seeking comment.

Altogether, more than three dozen migrants arrived in Sacramento on flights last Friday and on Monday. Most are from Colombia and Venezuela. California had not been their intended destination and shelters and aid workers were taken by surprise, authorities said.

Friday's group was dropped off at the Roman Catholic Church diocese's headquarters in Sacramento. U.S. immigration officials had already processed them in Texas and given them court dates for their asylum cases, and none had planned to arrive in California, said Eddie Carmona, campaign director at PICO California, a faith-based group helping the migrants in Sacramento.

Asylum seekers can change the location of their court appearances, but many are reluctant to try and instead prefer sticking with a firm date, at least for their initial appearances. They figure it is a guarantee, even if horribly inconvenient.

The Republican governors of Texas and Arizona have previously sent thousands of migrants on buses to New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., but the rare charter flights by DeSantis mark an escalation in tactics. The two groups sent to Sacramento never went through Florida. Instead, they were approached in El Paso by people with Florida-linked paperwork, sent to New Mexico, then put on private flights to California's capital, California officials and advocates said.

Bonta, who met with some of the migrants who arrived Friday, said they told him they were approached by two women who spoke broken Spanish and promised them jobs. The women traveled with them by land from El Paso to Deming, New Mexico, where two men then accompanied them on the flight to Sacramento. The same men were on the flight Monday, Bonta said.

"To see leaders and governments of other states and the state of Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis, acting with cruelty and inhumanity and moral bankruptcy and being petty and small and hurtful and harmful to those vulnerable asylum seekers is blood-boiling," Bonta said in a Monday interview.

Some of the migrants who arrived Friday told Bonta they met on their nearly three-month journey to the United States and decided to stick together to keep each other safe as they slept on the streets in several countries, he said.

As the migrants arrived in California Monday, a Texas sheriff's office announced it has recommended criminal charges over the two flights to Martha's Vineyard last year.

Johnny Garcia, a spokesman for the Bexar County Sheriff's Office, said that at this time the office is not naming suspects. It's not clear whether the local district attorney will pursue the charges, which include misdemeanor and felony counts of unlawful restraint, according to the sheriff's office.

The office of New Mexico Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham had no specifics as to why the immigrants were taken from Texas to New Mexico before being flown to California.

"Gov. Lujan Grisham stresses, yet again, the urgent need for comprehensive, thoughtful federal immigration reform which is rooted in a humanitarian response that keeps border communities in mind," the governor's spokesperson, Caroline Sweeney, said Monday.

Last year, DeSantis directed Republican lawmakers in Florida to create a program in his office dedicated to migrant relocations. It specified that the state could transport migrants from locations anywhere in the country. The law was designed to get around questions about the legality of transporting people on a flight that originated in Texas.

Florida's alleged role in the arrival of the two groups in Sacramento is sure to escalate the political feud between DeSantis and Newsom, who have offered conflicting visions on immigration, abortion and a host of other issues. ___

Rodriguez reported from San Francisco. Associated Press writers Anthony Izaguirre in Tallahassee, Fla., Paul J. Weber in Austin, Texas, Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Elliot Spagat in San Diego contributed.


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