Under the Influence: Money and Power in Politics

Western Congressman Rides Again with a Lobbyist in His Posse

Rep. Steve Pearce, a former oil services company owner, drew in the most money from oil and gas companies as a House candidate in the 2010 election cycle. (Oil well photo - Bureau of Land Management; photo of Steve Pearce - Wikimedia Commons; gray wolf photo - U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

House Rep. Steve Pearce rode a wave of national resentment and money from oil and gas companies to regain an office he vacated in 2008.

Now he's back, and he brought with him a former Washington insider and lobbyist who sought to roll back environmental legislation well before it was the hot new thing to do.

Pearce (R-N.M.), endorsed by the anti-establishment Tea Party Express, hired Washington veteran Todd Willens to be his chief of staff. Willens is a former lobbyist for Vitello Consulting, which works on natural resource issues for businesses and consults for a Native American casino.

Willens was also legislative director for Richard Pombo, a former House member from California who sought to eliminate the Endangered Species Act. The Sierra Club placed Pombo, a 14-year House veteran, on its list of Dirty Dozen Congressional representatives in 2006 for receiving large amounts of oil company contributions. Opponents also attacked Pombo for a financial connection to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff and for placing family on his campaign payroll.

Pombo was defeated in the 2008 election. Environmental groups contributed heavily to his opponent. Then, in 2010 he lost the Republican primary to Jeff Denham.

Willens was appointed deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks in the Interior Department by the Bush Administration in 2007. After just a year on the job, the Government Accountability Office released a 2008 report alleging that Willens and three other appointees had applied political pressure on employees who were making decisions on endangered species listings.

Who's Who: Steve Pearce

U.S. House of Representatives

Republican | New Mexico's 2nd District


• After leaving the House in 2008 to unsuccessfully run for the Senate, Pearce reclaimed his seat in the 2010 midterms.

• Pearce amassed $264,000 in oil and gas contributions, making him the No. 1 recipient from the industry among House candidates.

• The congressman is also the former owner and operator of the oilfield services firm, Lea Fishing Tools, Inc.

• From 2002 until 2010, Pearce received more than $400,000 from PACs and individuals associated with energy companies. Included in that was $48,000 from Koch Industries, the largest privately held energy company in the U.S., which seeks a rollback in environmental legislation.

• In addition to serving on the House Financial Services Committee, Pearce was chosen to lead the Congressional Western Caucus, a coalition of Republican members from Western states. The alliance promotes rural interests and private property rights and resists expanded environmental protection. The Caucus advocates for multiple uses of Federal lands, such as grazing, recreation and timber production.

Willens also caused a ruckus in 2007 after being appointed as the head of a U.S. delegation sent to the World Heritage Committee meeting in New Zealand.

Despite the fact that the National Park Service had sent along a report suggesting that the Florida Everglades remain on an endangered list created by the Committee, Willens altered the report to ask for the de-listing of the park.

He later told the St. Petersburg Times, "I changed the last sentence of our report and said we wanted to be taken off.''

What's on Tap
Pearce has so far co-sponsored two pieces of natural resource legislation in the current Congress, one of which asserts the right of local land control and the other would amend the Endangered Species Act.

House Resolution 302, or the "Preserve Land Freedom For Americans Act of 2011," would require the president to gain a state's approval before designating a national monument on federal land within a state. And, if passed, the secretary of the interior would be unable to restrict public usage of the monument without state review and approval.

H.R.509 would change the Endangered Species Act of 1973 so that it would not apply to canis lupis, the gray wolf.

The wolf bill was introduced by fellow Western Caucus member Dennis Rehberg and is supported by Big Game Forever, a hunting political advocacy group. Hunting groups argue that federal protection of the gray wolf is destroying moose and elk populations in the West.

Safari Club International, which claims to be the largest big game hunting organization in the world, spent $4,000 for a direct mailing in support of Pearce.

Both bills are idling in the House Committee on Natural Resources.

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