Activist asserts no plan to harm drilling auction

AP News
Posted: Mar 02, 2011 6:26 PM
Activist asserts no plan to harm drilling auction

Tim DeChristopher says he took a stand during a federal auction of oil and gas drilling leases after he realized protesting was not enough.

Facing up to 10 years in prison if he's convicted of interfering with the 2008 auction and making false representations, he testified in his own defense Wednesday, saying he planned to merely check out the protests taking place in front of the Bureau of Land Management's offices.

But DeChristopher said he felt compelled to do more than the activists walking back and forth outside, and it looked like the only way he could get into the auction was by posing as a bidder.

"I wanted to go inside to take stronger action," he said. "I didn't have any intent to do anything inside the auction at that point. My impression was that I had to sign up."

DeChristopher, who has been hailed as a symbol of opposition to U.S. oil and gas drilling policy, told the U.S. District Court jury he had no advance plan to thwart the auction where he won $1.7 million in leases he couldn't afford.

With bidder's paddle No. 70 in hand, DeChristopher said he wanted "to wave a red flag about what was going on."

So once it became evident how the auction worked, "there was an opportunity for me to cause enough of a delay so the new (Obama) administration could come in and reconsider the auction," he told the jury of eight men and four women as some took careful notes.

A federal judge later blocked many of the auction's leases from being issued, and fellow environmentalists have made a folk hero of DeChristopher, insisting he was standing up to a federal agency that violated environmental laws by holding the auction. Activists including actress Daryl Hannah have demonstrated outside the federal courthouse this week.

But Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott Romney says the trial isn't about "Big Oil" or federal government but one man's effort to "sabotage" to the bidding process.

The case is expected to go to the jury Thursday after closing arguments in the morning.

DeChristopher, 29, has pleaded not guilty but doesn't dispute the facts of the case. He insisted, however, that he had no intent to harm anyone and his initial intention was to raise the bidding closer to fair market value.

"I wasn't sure if I was violating any rules," he said in his testimony.

DeChristopher said that during the auction, he looked to the back of the room and saw one of his friends crying. It was those glances that Bureau of Land Management agent Daniel Love has testified made him suspicious _ along with DeChristopher's attire, which didn't fit in with the other bidders.

"I was certainly moved by the fact that she was crying," DeChristopher said. "At that moment I felt that I had to do more and take a stand at the auction. I started winning parcels.

"It was a spur of the moment idea."

After Love approached him, DeChristopher said he called an acquaintance with fundraising experience about what options he might have and was under the impression that it would be possible to raise the money to pay for his $1.7 million in leases. The government has refused to accept any money from that effort.

More than 20 supporters, some wearing orange scarves, were in the courtroom Wednesday morning when one of DeChristopher's lawyers, Pat Shea, tried to cross-examine BLM official Kent Hoffman about inconsistencies in the agency's auction policies.

However, Judge Dee Benson upheld frequent objections by prosecutors and stopped many of Shea's questions.

Love testified Tuesday that DeChristopher said he knew what he did was wrong after the auction and that he was prepared to accept punishment.

When Romney asked DeChristopher during the cross-examination if he wanted to sabotage the auction, DeChristopher said his intent was to delay the auction so the government could reconsider.

Other bidders left the auction as DeChristopher began with small bids, one at $500, then a later one for $25,000, Love testified. Besides his winning bids on 22,500 acres near Arches and Canyonlands national parks in Utah, DeChristoper's offers on about 20 of 131 parcels inflated the prices by a total of $300,000, Love said.

Federal prosecutors say DeChristopher is the only person ever charged with failing to make good on bids at a lease auction of public lands in Utah. They have offered plea deals over the past two years, but he opted to go to trial.