Five years ago, high-powered Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff went to a dinner with top officials of the Interior Department, representatives of the White House and leaders of the National Mining Assn.
That Georgetown dinner has now come back to haunt one of the guests -- William G. Myers III, who was the Interior Department's top lawyer at the time and for the last three years one of President Bush's most controversial nominees for a federal judgeship.
Last week, Myers was asked to explain why he testified earlier to the Senate Judiciary Committee that he had never met Abramoff.
Virtually every major environmental group in the country as well as civil rights, women's, labor and American Indian organizations have vigorously opposed Myers' nomination to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Senate Democrats have succeeded in blocking his appointment, saying they feared Myers, who has spent much of his career as a lawyer and lobbyist for mining and grazing interests, would be an anti-environmental activist on the bench.
Myers' backers counter that he would bring balance to the 9th Circuit, which they maintain is too liberal.
Immediately after the November midterm election, Bush announced his intention to renominate Myers -- who now practices law in Boise, Idaho -- to the San Francisco-based court.
In recent days though, questions have arisen about Myers' March 2005 response to a query by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democratic on the judiciary committee. Leahy asked Myers whether he had ever had any contact with Abramoff, then the subject of intense federal investigations who later pleaded guilty to conspiracy and wire fraud and is serving 70 months in prison.
"I have searched my memory and files," Myers responded. "To the best of my recollection, I have never had any contact with Mr. Abramoff. I do not recall ever meeting him, speaking to him by phone, corresponding with him at any time, or otherwise having any contact with Mr. Abramoff."
A week ago, however, the Denver Post published a story based on information obtained under the Freedom of Information Act showing that Myers was among two dozen people attending the dinner on Sept. 24, 2001, with Abramoff. Sponsored by the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy, the event was held at the home of Republican fundraiser Julie Finley.
On Tuesday, Leahy asked Myers in writing to explain the "discrepancy between your testimony to the Judiciary Committee and the documents obtained by the Denver Post."
Myers sent a written response to Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), outgoing chairman of the judiciary committee, saying, "I simply have no recollection of encountering Mr. Abramoff at the event. I did not know him or who he was. Nor do I have any recollection of meeting him after the event."
On Friday, Leahy said on the Senate floor that the Post story remained "unrefuted and unexplained." Leahy, who is set to become chairman of the judiciary committee in January, said Bush had "squandered an opportunity to fill Idaho's vacancy on the 9th Circuit" by renominating Myers.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who has opposed Myers' bid for a judgeship on the grounds that he lacks the necessary qualifications and independence, was more pointed. "The revelation that Mr. Myers gave seemingly misleading responses to the judiciary committee about his contact with Jack Abramoff raises yet another question about his nomination," Feinstein said.
"In light of the many concerns about Mr. Myers' fitness to serve on the second highest court in the nation and the bipartisan Senate opposition to Mr. Myers' nomination, I hope that the president will choose not to renominate Mr. Myers in the 110th Congress," Feinstein added.
But Blair Jones, a White House spokesman, said the president had no intention of withdrawing the nomination. "We believe that Mr. Myers is well-qualified, and we look forward to his confirmation," Jones said Friday afternoon
Representatives of environmental groups and Indian tribes said the latest revelations heightened their concerns about Myers.
Among their earlier concerns: Myers' role in promoting a proposed 1,600-acre open-pit gold mine that would be adjacent to federally designated wilderness in Imperial County. The area contains 55 recorded historic properties eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, as well as religious sites, including prayer circles, ceremonial places, shrines and petroglyphs. While serving as the top lawyer at the Interior Department, Myers supported development of the mining operation by Glamis Gold Ltd. of Canada.
Attorney Courtney A. Coyle, who represents the Quechan tribe, said in a telephone interview last week that the new documents showed that Myers was at the Sept. 24, 2001, dinner -- whose guests included Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton and top leaders of the National Mining Assn. who supported the Glamis project -- and that he met the next day with Interior Department lawyers to discuss the project.
In October 2001, Myers reversed his predecessor's opinion to block the Glamis project and allowed it to move forward.
Two years later, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., ruled that Myers had "misconstrued the clear mandate" of the Federal Lands Policy Management Act, which "by its plain terms, vests the secretary of the Interior with the authority -- and indeed the obligation -- to disapprove" mines that "would unduly harm or degrade the public land."