William Perry Pendley's views on racial inequality and social justice could prove a bigger obstacle to the Senate's confirming him as director of the Bureau of Land Management than his controversial statements on public lands.
Pendley, whom President Trump plans to nominate as BLM director, wrote a November 2017 op-ed in the Washington Examiner in which he dismissed the Black Lives Matter movement as based on "a lie that spread like cancer through inner cities endangering men and women in blue and the citizens who look to them for protection."
The op-ed centers on a controversial play based on grand jury testimony about the 2014 fatal shooting of Michael Brown, who was Black and unarmed, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo. Brown's death sparked the Black Lives Matter movement, which today is leading nationwide protests demanding police reform after the choking death of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis.
"Michael Brown never raised his hands in surrender and cried, 'Hands up; Don't shoot,'" Pendley wrote. "We know the political movement spawned August 9, 2014, Black Lives Matter, was built on that terrible lie — a lie the mainstream media perpetrated, that cowardly politicians, fearful of saying 'all lives matter,' emboldened."
Pendley did not shy away from promoting this view, later linking to the op-ed nearly a year later in an Oct. 10, 2018, post from his Twitter handle @Sagebrush_Rebel.
He linked to the op-ed again in a May 30, 2019, tweet — less than two months before Interior Secretary David Bernhardt appointed him to be BLM's deputy director of policy and programs, and two weeks later its acting chief.
BLM today released a statement from Pendley to E&E News that does not address the Black Lives Matter op-ed.
Instead, it references the Floyd killing and Pendley's support for Trump's "instruction that the Justice Department expedite its civil rights investigation into Mr. Floyd's death."
The statement adds: "Because I have never shied away from controversy, I spent the past 30 years of my legal career defending the constitutional rights of those whose liberties were infringed upon by the government. As an officer of the court, I took it as my solemn duty to seek liberty and justice for all. I remain steadfast in that pursuit."
It remains to be seen whether Pendley's previous comments on Black Lives Matter will harm his chances of being confirmed to the Interior post he has held on an acting basis for nearly a year. Nearly a dozen Senate and House lawmakers contacted by E&E News did not immediately return requests for comment.
For Pendley — an avowed "sagebrush rebel" who served as a top official during the Reagan administration under Interior Secretary James Watt — the op-ed is part of a long string of controversial statements and views.
Sources told E&E News last year that Trump was considering Pendley for the BLM director post, and that Pendley had undergone a formal background check in anticipation of a nomination (Greenwire, Dec. 23, 2019).
While it's not clear what the results were of any vetting process, it's almost certain that the White House was aware of Pendley's op-ed, titled "Black Lives Matter began with a lie."
Pendley wrote the op-ed while he was president of the conservative Mountain States Legal Foundation.
Pendley, until leaving the foundation in late 2018, represented Garfield and Kane counties in Utah as defendant-intervenors in a lawsuit challenging Trump's controversial decision to slash the size of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (Greenwire, Jan. 14, 2019).
He has defended his past public statements and op-eds, including a January 2016 opinion article in National Review in which he decried federal landownership and argued that the U.S. Constitution all but requires the federal government to sell the lands it owns in the West.
He has also attacked climate science and the Endangered Species Act, which he once decried as overseen by an "endangered species cartel" composed of "bureaucrats, left-wing nonprofit groups, and highly paid 'scientists.'"
His chief defense has been that his past views are irrelevant today. As a former Marine, Pendley has said he follows orders and the direction of Bernhardt and President Trump.
Pendley said last year that he would welcome Trump's nomination (Greenwire, Nov. 11, 2019).
But in today's political climate, in which House Democrats have proposed sweeping police reforms and the GOP-led Senate is considering doing much the same, Pendley's dismissive comments about the Black Lives Matter movement are certain to generate tough questions from senators, if confirmation hearings are ever held.
Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, today tweeted his opposition to Pendley's nomination based on his controversial public lands comments.
"William Perry Pendley spent his career fighting to sell off public lands — and to allow drilling, mining, and logging on them with hardly any oversight," Biden wrote. "Now the President has nominated him to oversee them at @BLMNational. Consider me opposed."
In the wake of Brown's death, protesters seized on a rallying cry of "Hands up! Don't shoot!" The phrase was inspired by witness accounts that Brown raised his hands before police officer Darren Wilson shot him.
According to Associated Press coverage of the St. Louis County, Mo., grand jury proceedings, witness accounts differed on whether Brown "walked, stumbled or charged back toward Wilson" before the officer fired his weapon. Witnesses likely differed on whether Brown had in fact raised his hands in the air.
But The Washington Post's "Fact Checker" wrote in March 2015 that while the mantra born from Brown's shooting "has evolved into a message that is no longer connected solely to the Ferguson event," it was not accurate in the incident that inspired it.
The newspaper noted that the Justice Department concluded that the police officer did not know whether Brown was armed and acted out of self-defense.
"'Hands up, don't shoot' did not happen in Brown's killing," the Fact Checker wrote, issuing a four-Pinocchio rating to the phrase.
The Post's opinion writer Jonathan Capehart, a Pulitzer Prize winner and contributor to MSNBC, likewise wrote that the rallying phrase was "built on a lie."
"Yet this does not diminish the importance of the real issues unearthed in Ferguson by Brown's death. Nor does it discredit what has become the larger 'Black Lives Matter,'" Capehart wrote.
In Pendley's 2017 op-ed, he references a scene at the end of the play — called "Ferguson" — in which a Black woman who witnessed the fatal encounter testifies that Wilson "had no other choice" but to shoot Brown. The grand jury declined to indict Wilson.
The scene appears to have fired up Pendley.
"It is over and we know what the grand jury knew, what state and local prosecutors knew, and what Attorney General Eric Holder and his legal team in Washington — eager to make headlines with a civil rights suit against Officer Wilson and the police department — knew," he wrote.
Pendley defended the play's author, Phelim McAleer, a conservative journalist and documentary filmmaker.
McAleer is best known for projects such as "FrackNation," a film that he produced with his wife, Ann McElhinney, that aimed to counter the anti-hydraulic fracturing film "Gasland" (Energywire, Jan. 17, 2013).
In a separate May 30, 2019, tweet, Pendley blasted a decision by a Washington, D.C., theater not to host a new play by McAleer concerning negative comments about then-candidate for president Donald Trump by two FBI agents. Pendley linked to an article in The Hollywood Reporter that noted the theater had canceled the play due to "threats of violence."
"Cowards!" Pendley wrote in the tweet. "The artistic left is so brave except when a performance does not fit its narrative."
Reporter Timothy Cama contributed.