A former top official of the Interior Department, a close friend of Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr., has come under fire for helping fight efforts by state and federal parks agencies to acquire the campus of Soka University in Calabasas.
Lou Gallegos, who resigned in November as an assistant Interior secretary, has since done consulting work for the Interior Department and Soka's Washington lobbying firm. Soka is fighting attempts to buy 248 acres of its land for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.
Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson (D-Los Angeles), the Santa Monicas' leading congressional advocate, said recently that Gallegos' involvement sends a message to top officials of the Interior Department and the National Park Service, the department branch that administers the national recreation area, that Soka is politically well-connected.
"If this is not a violation of the law, perhaps it should be," Beilenson said. "Why would Soka spend good money hiring him if they didn't think there was some benefit to be acquired?"
As assistant secretary for policy, budget and administration, Gallegos was Lujan's right-hand man who "had general control over the policy direction of the department," senior Bush Administration officials said. Gallegos and Lujan, a former congressman, have long been mainstays of New Mexico GOP politics.
Gallegos, who has been retained by Soka's lobbying firm, Palumbo & Cerrell Inc., denied Monday in a telephone interview from New Mexico that he has lobbied his former agency on behalf of Soka or traded on his friendship with Lujan.
Rather, Gallegos said, his work for Soka has involved "internal discussions having to do with strategy." Gallegos is prohibited from seeking to influence the Interior Department or its employees for one year after his departure under the federal "revolving door" law.
At the same time, Gallegos said he was "a little bit troubled" that his involvement "seems to be a fixation with some folks."
Soka University, an offshoot of the Tokyo-based Soka Gakkai Buddhist lay organization, wants to convert its 100-student English-language school for Japanese students, now occupying a former Catholic seminary in the heart of the national recreation area, into a 4,400-student liberal arts college.
Park officials, however, contend that a large university is incompatible with a national park. Moreover, they have long coveted the site for a park visitor and activity center.
The struggle spilled into legislative arenas in recent months as park advocates sought to obtain funds to make an offer to buy the property. Soka, which has vowed not to sell, has expressed concerned that the Park Service may seek to condemn the land and acquire it under eminent domain proceedings.
Speculation about Gallegos' role was triggered last month after a provision was inserted into a Senate appropriations bill that would bar use of federal funds to acquire the Soka property through condemnation proceedings. It was unknown who inserted the language in the Senate measure, which must be reconciled with a House Interior spending bill that does not mention condemnation.
If Gallegos was behind "the mysterious actions in Washington," that raises questions about "the integrity of the decision-making process in the Interior Department," said Joseph T. Edmiston, executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, a state agency that helps acquire parkland for the national recreation area.
Gallegos said he has not lobbied Congress but would be "free and at liberty to do so if that's the general strategy arrived at." The one-year lobbying ban applies only to executive branch employees trying to influence their former agencies.
Gallegos, a former New Mexico cabinet official and longtime aide to U.S. Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), is extremely close to Lujan. He was "represented to us for years as being Manuel Lujan's closest personal friend," an Interior official said.
Under his consulting contract with the Interior Department, which took effect the day after he left the department, Gallegos has been advising Interior officials on how to increase recruitment of women and minorities, said Steven Goldstein, chief Interior spokesman.
Gallegos said his only contact with the department on the Soka matter was a call to a department financial officer to ask "what kind of policy guidance was issued" for the agency's budget request for the coming fiscal year. Interior officials say Gallegos called once to inquire whether the department had a policy on condemnation.
Gallegos said he has never spoken to Lujan on the matter, adding that it would be "unseemly to contact the secretary on those kinds of things. . . .
"We're personal friends, have been and probably always will be," Gallegos said, referring to Lujan. "I don't take advantage of that personal relationship."
But Beilenson said that Gallegos' merely "calling those who worked for him a few months ago and telling them who he works for, and asking for information, sends a message."
Noting that he has held key governmental and political posts before working at the Interior Department, Gallegos said he "would like to believe that I represent an asset way beyond" his Interior connections.
A key skirmish in the Soka battle looms this fall when Senate and House conferees must resolve differences in bills funding land acquisitions in the Santa Monicas. The Senate bill provides $7.5 million for the next fiscal year and includes the condemnation ban. The House version earmarks $14 million for the Santa Monicas.
Edmiston said he believes the value of the Soka property is about $30 million. If Congress makes available $14 million, he said, the conservancy could come up with the remainder. Soka officials contend that, given the many improvements they've made, the property is worth "in excess of $50 million."
Soka University, an offshoot of the Tokyo-based Soka Gakkai Buddhist lay organization, wants to convert its 100-student English-language school for Japanese students, now occupying a former Catholic seminary in the heart of the national recreation area in the Santa Monica Mountains, into a 4,400-student liberal arts college. Park Service officials, however, contend that a large university is incompatible with a national park. They want the site for a visitor and activity center. Recently the struggle has spilled into legislative arenas as park advocates sought to obtain funds to make an offer to buy the property. Soka, which has vowed not to sell, has expressed concerned that the Park Service may seek to condemn the land and acquire it under eminent domain proceedings.