Welcome to Pombo Country 

Congressman Richard Pombo always sides with property owners. Sometimes that includes his own family.

Page 3 of 7

Pombo's fund-raising prowess is so formidable that he often raises more money than he needs. Last year, he was able to donate $147,500 to the National Republican Congressional Committee, which typically funnels such excess funds to tighter House races around the country. According to an analysis by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, Pombo has raised more than $5.4 million and spent nearly $5.1 million in his congressional career. His biggest benefactor by far has been agribusiness, including ranchers, dairy farmers, and other farming interests, who have pumped nearly $1.1 million into his coffers.

In the two years since Pombo took control of the House Resources Committee, donations from oil and gas interests, along with Native American tribes, have skyrocketed. In 2003 and 2004, he hauled in $151,552 from energy and natural-resources companies, which took over as his top contributors, according to an analysis by PoliticalMoneyLine.com. Four of his ten largest individual or political action committee donors, meanwhile, were Native American tribes.

The chairmanship of the Resources Committee also could help Pombo advance his legislative agenda, which sputtered under the Clinton Administration. Gutting and then killing the Endangered Species Act remains his top priority. Earlier this year, he circulated draft legislation that would eliminate the act completely in ten years. "It's pretty clear that he's using his chair of the Resources Committee to serve his own agenda," said Burt Semcer, the Sierra Club's Washington, DC, representative.

Earlier this year, Pombo solidified his relationship with the Republican majority leader to whom he owes his chairmanship. In January, Pombo and fellow Central Valley Republican John Doolittle worked behind the scenes with other House Republican leaders to alter House Ethics Committee rules in order to protect DeLay from further investigation by the Ethics Committee, which already had admonished him. DeLay has been under scrutiny for receiving gifts and travel from Jack Abramoff, a former powerhouse Washington lobbyist for Native American tribes. Abramoff, who was indicted by a Fort Lauderdale federal grand jury on fraud charges in early August, also has donated $7,000 to Pombo's political action committee -- RICH PAC.

But helping the powerful DeLay with his ethics problems may turn out to have been a savvy move for Pombo, who recently has had several of his own.


During his early years on Capitol Hill, Pombo added to his Western persona by developing a reputation for telling tall tales. In his 1996 book with conservative writer Joseph Farah, This Land Is Our Land: How to End the War on Private Property, Pombo told an apparently fanciful tale about how he got into politics, implying that a family run-in with the East Bay Regional Park District in the 1980s first prompted him to run for office. Agency spokesmen later said Pombo wasn't telling the truth. He had alleged that the park district sought "an abandoned railroad right-of-way as a recreational trail through the property of two dozen local ranchers and that of my family." He also complained that the park district had sought to block construction of homes to protect the "viewshed" of the trails "without any compensation whatsoever." Park district spokesmen later pointed out that the district had no interest in the Pombos' Altamont property because it was beyond the district's boundaries at the time, and that it was actually seeking railroad right-of-ways in Niles Canyon, at least twenty miles away.

Protecting the value of his family's property has been a recurrent theme for Pombo. In 1994, he told a Senate committee that his family ranch had been devalued after it was declared a critical habitat for the San Joaquin kit fox. When questioned, he and his staff later acknowledged that the claim was untrue, but said the problem still applied to other Central Valley ranchers. But that wasn't true either. At the time, the federal government had yet to declare any critical habitat for the fox.

On more than one occasion, Pombo also has used government resources for political or personal ends. Just weeks before the November 2004 presidential election, Pombo directed his Resources Committee staff to mail out 166,000 copies of a two-page color leaflet that touted President Bush and the Resources Committee for working to "ensure that snowmobilers have access to our National Parks and recreation areas." The mailers went to snowmobile owners in the swing states of Minnesota and Wisconsin. They also derided a Clinton-era ban of snowmobiles in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, which the Bush administration had overturned. The mailers cost $68,081 in federal funds.

Spending taxpayer dollars on partisan political ads is illegal, but Pombo's staff maintained that the mailers were merely informing citizens about Resources Committee work and were not political. Democrats argued otherwise, and complaints were filed against Pombo with the commission that oversees congressional mail privileges. "The Republicans just dismissed it, even though it violates the law about not using public resources for political purposes," said Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat from San Jose, who remains unhappy about how the Republican majority handled the issue. Before the complaints were dismissed, however, Democrats were able to install specific rules that prohibit such leaflets in the future by limiting committee mailing expenditures to $5,000.

At almost precisely the same time that the snowmobile leaflets went out, Pombo's aides began a lobbying campaign that stood to benefit his parents. For years, environmentalists have been upset at the wind-power industry for doing nothing about the thousands of birds killed annually by the wind turbines that dot the Altamont Pass. A report last year from the California Energy Commission estimated that the number of birds shredded or electrocuted by wind turbines in the Altamont could be as high as 4,700 a year, and biologists from the US Fish and Wildlife Service appeared to agree that something needed to be done.

But early last October, Pombo's Resources Committee staff sought to silence Fish and Wildlife officials. They wrote a letter to Gale A. Norton, head of the US Interior Department, which oversees Fish and Wildlife, and then met with officials to complain that the needs of wind-power companies had been overlooked, according to a Los Angeles Times story in April of this year. "After that meeting, the Fish and Wildlife Service was removed -- they were no longer involved," said Richard Wiebe, a San Francisco attorney for the environmental group Center for Biological Diversity. The center last year sued the wind-power companies to compensate the state of California for the bird losses in the Altamont.

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