Tribune denied investigation information
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has denied the requests of two area newspapers to obtain a report on the investigation into the most expensive land swap in the U.S. Forest Service’s history – the purchase of Zephyr Cove’s Dreyfus estate.
Both the Tahoe Daily Tribune and The Record-Courier of Gardnerville last week requested under the Freedom of Information Act a copy of the report summarizing the lengthy investigation that concluded in recent weeks. Both papers Wednesday received letters denying the request.
Douglas County commissioners have long been critics of the way the $38 million piece of property was being used by the federal government. Don Miner, a Douglas County commissioner, said he was upset that, even though the investigation is over, the information is not being shared with the public.
“The (district attorney) is working on (obtaining a copy), but sometimes if the federal government doesn’t want to be cooperative and release it, it could go through a process that could take up to six months or a year,” Miner said. “Obviously, the hush order is in; the gag order has been issued to the people involved. That’s your government in action. It’s pathetic.”
The federal government in 1997 gave an Arizona-based land brokerage company, the Olympic Group, private land around Las Vegas in exchange for the 46-acre parcel of land containing the Dreyfus estate. The Forest Service reportedly had no interest in the mansion or other improvements on the property and the agency allowed the Olympic Group to sell them. The Park Cattle Co. made the purchase with the understanding that a special land-use permit would be issued for the company to operate the buildings as a business. Douglas County officials viewed the transaction as meaning more tax dollars and additional public access on highly valued Lake Tahoe shorefront property.
Negotiations reached a standstill last summer when questions arose over an audit by the Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Region’s land adjustment program.
Auditors claimed the property without improvements – buildings, driveways, and fences – should have had an appraised value of up to $10 million less, which meant the public would have paid more than fair market value.
An investigation ensued.
David Dickson, special agent in charge of the Dreyfus exchange investigation, said earlier this month that the investigation was over. While declining to discuss details, he said the investigation found no grounds for criminal prosecution.
He said the information would have to be released via a special request citing the Freedom of Information Act. After hearing the requests had been denied, he said Wednesday, now that the report has been forwarded to the Forest Service, his office is essentially no longer involved. He suggested appealing the decision.
“Essentially, we’re the fact finders. At this point, our involvement in the issue ends,” he said. “At this point, it’s in the hands of the Forest Service.”
Forest Service officials from the Lake Tahoe Basin were supposed to be briefed on the report Tuesday. However, Linda Massey, spokeswoman for the Lake Tahoe branch of the agency, declined to provide details Wednesday.
“About all that can be said at this time is the (Forest Service’s) regional office is still sorting out its position,” she said.
The public would soon be informed, she said.
Brad Powell, acting forest supervisor for the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Region, did not return a phone call Wednesday. Dave Reider, a spokesman for the regional office, returned a call but was uninformed about the status of the report.
The letter denying the Tribune’s request stated: “This matter is being reviewed by officials of the Forest Service and a decision concerning administrative action is pending. All documents pertaining to this investigation are exempt from mandatory disclosure … because records were compiled for law enforcement purposes and release at this time could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings.”
Miner said he was upset at the time the process was taking, especially since Dickson has already indicated no criminal prosecution would be involved.
“They spent $38 million buying land for public use, and they won’t let the public use it. Now they want to delay it by not releasing the information. We’ve been waiting two years,” he said.
The Tribune and The Record-Courier, both of which are owned by Swift Newspapers Inc., plan to appeal the denial.
The Zephyr Cove property contains 3,000 feet of sandy beach, a wetland, meadow, creek and several types of sensitive plants and animals. There also is a caretaker’s cottage there, and the Dreyfus mansion itself is a 10,000-square-foot building.
The Dreyfus estate land swap is separate from another Lake Tahoe Basin exchange involving property formerly owned by New York mutual fund manager Jack Dreyfus. That exchange involves 140 acres south of Sand Harbor containing a medieval-style French chateau known as the Whittell mansion.
-Tribune News Service reporter Sheila Gardner contributed to this report.
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