By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
No matter how hard they run for Congress by bashing it, once they're on Capitol Hill, representatives learn quickly that in dealing with fellow lawmakers, kid gloves are required accessories. It is not kosher to meddle in the affairs of another member's state or district. And unless there's opportunity for a news sound bite, verbal jabs are rare, too.
Perhaps that's why the daily newspapers in Las Vegas salivated last month when their Democratic U.S. Representative, Jim Bilbray, unleashed broadsides at the delegation from Arizona, particularly Republican Jon Kyl. Screaming headlines in the Vegas papers accompanied accounts of Bilbray's condemnation of Kyl.
Bilbray, who was sponsoring legislation to expand a nature preserve near Las Vegas, was opposed by Kyl and other Arizona members, who were watching out for the interests of Phoenix-based developer Del Webb Corporation. Del Webb, creator of the Sun City and Sun City West retirement meccas, longs to establish a similar community near Las Vegas, and it desperately wants to build it on 2,900 acres of Bilbray's proposed preserve.
Bilbray says Del Webb is playing "hardball," and claims he found proof in a move by Kyl last month--far away from issues of public land--in the House Armed Services Committee, where Bilbray and Kyl serve together. Bilbray claims that Kyl--in an attempt to exert leverage for Del Webb--spitefully voted to kill an unrelated solar-energy research project that would have brought jobs and revenue to Las Vegas. Kyl hotly denies the accusation. The Las Vegas newspapers played it as a battle between Bilbray and Kyl. A more accurate assessment would be a war between developers--Del Webb and Summa Corporation, a Las Vegas-based builder that wants to keep Del Webb out of its burgeoning market. While Del Webb has been whispering in Arizona ears, Summa Corporation has lobbied Bilbray to keep him from freeing up the land Del Webb wants.
According to Federal Election Commission data, as of April 15, Summa Corporation and its employees had donated $5,500 to Bilbray's reelection effort--far more than it had given to any other candidate.
Coincidentally, Del Webb and its employees have coughed up $5,100 to Kyl's coffers--again, far more than to any other candidate.
Mark Grisham, an aide to Representative Karan English (Democrat-Arizona), who has worked on a compromise to free up the land Del Webb wants, says Bilbray is shilling for Summa. "He purposefully included this land [in the expanded preserve] even though it's very low quality," Grisham says. "What you've got going on is a fight between two corporations. Bilbray is caught in the middle of that."
Bilbray spokesman Gordon Absher counters: "This is not a Summa issue. Everybody's trying to make this land developer against land developer, and that's just not it. . . . Sure, they've [Summa lobbyists] called him [Bilbray], but their interest is one voice among hundreds of thousands that we hear."
Summa officials did not return calls from New Times.
As for Del Webb's contributions to Kyl? "People can look at that and I suppose make their own assumptions," says Del Webb spokesman Ken Plonski. "The fact of the matter is we do have a PAC, we do support political candidates in our state and Jon Kyl happens to be running for a very visible office [U.S. Senate]."
He adds, "I don't believe that there's many congressmen--and this includes probably Jim Bilbray, as well--that would accept money and have some kind of beholding interest to a company, based on that, to vote one way or another on a bill." Asked about contributions from Summa and Del Webb, Kyl says, "I assume there's no connection in Bilbray's case. I know there's no connection in my case."
@body:Last year, Bilbray introduced legislation to expand the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area near Las Vegas by 93,000 acres. Del Webb has lobbied to have 2,900 acres stricken from the bill, studied for their value, then possibly put on the block for public bidding.
Kyl wonders why the federal government doesn't sell the 2,900 acres and rake in millions. "It's [the land] not good for anything else," Kyl says.
Actually, that depends on who's talking.
Federal Bureau of Land Management officials, who oversee public lands, say the agency has no opinion on the value of the land or whether it should be included in the preserve.
However, environmentalists argue that the land only appears to be unfit for preservation, because it has been neglected and used as an illegal dump site. Under the heading "Another Screw Nevada Attempt," a coalition that includes the Sierra Club, League of Women Voters of Las Vegas and Red Rock Audubon Society weighed in with a press release stating: "On-site visits by Nevada environmentalists find that the amount of trash on the land is no worse than much of the land around Las Vegas. A pile of trash exists on the land sought by Del Webb, but it can be cleaned up in a day." Then, at a news conference at Red Rock in April, Steve Carothers, president of SWCA Environmental Consultants, stated, "With the exception of a few second-growth agricultural fields, I have never been asked to assess a piece of public land with less intrinsic resource value than the one you are standing on today."