Like the snake oil salesmen of yore, Utah state Rep. Ken Ivory has been traveling the country peddling his fraudulent wares, and now he is descending on the unsuspecting people of Washington. This week, Ivory is meeting with local officials across the state to shill for a patently unconstitutional cause: transferring federal lands to state control.
Earlier this month, Ivory spoke at the Veterans Memorial Museum in Chehalis to drum up support for his lands transfer agenda. He tried to convince the crowd of about 40 people that taking federal lands from the federal government is constitutional, despite conclusive evidence to the contrary. Then, Ivory tried to make his case to the Columbia Basin Badger Club in Richland. Ivory debated Dave Chadwick, the executive director of the Montana Wildlife Federation, who pointed out that residents of the Pacific Northwest overwhelmingly support public lands.
Ivory’s losing arguments haven’t stopped him from gaining support in Washington, though. At least five counties have contributed to his efforts to have states take over federal lands. Ivory’s latest swing through the state is just his latest effort to convince unsuspecting victims that, like snake oil, his cause isn’t completely foolhardy.
For years, Ivory has been trying to recruit supporters from across the country. In 2012, he started a nonprofit group, the American Lands Council, to advocate for transferring federal lands to the states. That same year, he convinced the Utah Legislature to pass legislation directing the federal government to turn over control of federal lands to the state of Utah. This has gone exactly nowhere, though it is already costing the people of Utah millions of taxpayer dollars.
Simultaneously serving as the paid head of ALC and a member of the Utah House of Representatives, Ivory has intermingled his efforts promoting his employer with the representation of his constituents. Until recently, Ivory served as ALC’s president and his wife, Becky, served as its communications director. According to the most recently available tax forms, Ivory and his wife received $153,000 in salaries from ALC – nearly half of the organization’s 2014 budget.
Last month, my organization released dozens of emails showing how Ivory used his legislative email account to promote ALC. We also published documents from the Utah Attorney General’s Office that show Ivory lied to state investigators when he claimed he had not used state resources for ALC business. Based on these records, we called on the attorney general to investigate whether Ivory broke laws by using his official position to promote ALC and its agenda.
This is about more than just a part-time legislator advancing the interests of his employer from his governmental perch. While Ivory clearly benefited from ALC, the county governments funding the nonprofit have been sold a bill of goods. Ivory’s promises of millions of acres turned over to states are utterly ludicrous. Utah’s own Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel found Ivory’s lands transfer legislation has “a high probability of being declared unconstitutional,” and a legal analysis by two University of Utah law professors concluded any claim by Utah to federal land is “doomed to failure.” Court challenges to federal ownership and management of public land have failed repeatedly.
Pushing this legally unsupportable legislation is not harmless. Ivory and his ilk offer cover to anti-government militants, such as those who took over Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, by providing them a legal argument for their claims that appears to be – but decidedly is not – legitimate. The Southern Poverty Law Center has noted that standoffs by militia groups are an outgrowth of the lands transfer movement Ivory leads and promotes.
Like a 19th century traveling salesman, Ivory is nothing if not a showman. He knows how to read a room, speak to a crowd and tell a convincing tale. Those who think he may be onto something should investigate his claims before signing on in support. A little research will reveal that this snake oil salesman has not – and cannot – deliver on his promises.
Anne Weismann is the executive director of Campaign for Accountability, a government watchdog group based in Washington, D.C.