Federal jury in Utah convicts environmentalist

AP News
Posted: Mar 04, 2011 4:37 AM
Federal jury in Utah convicts environmentalist

Environmental activist Tim DeChristopher knew what he was doing when he made $1.8 million in false oil and gas drilling bids at a federal auction. He knew he couldn't possibly pay for them. And he knew he could end up behind bars.

But he did it for the cause. On Thursday, a federal jury convicted him on two felony counts of interfering with and making false representations at a government auction. He now faces up to 10 years in prison and a fine of $750,000 at his June 23 sentencing.

It was a case that became a cause celebre among avid supporters and Hollywood celebrities such as Robert Redford and Daryl Hannah.

The 29-year-old made the bids to run up the price of 13 oil-and-gas leases near Utah's Arches and Canyonlands national parks and push the land beyond the reach of buyers.

But in the end, he lacked the ability to cover his bids.

DeChristopher remained stoic and resigned as the verdict was read, showing little emotion. Supporters, who filled more than half the courtroom, gasped and cried.

"Nobody told me this battle would be easy," he later told more than 50 fellow activists on the courthouse steps. "Because of what you have done on the outside, it doesn't matter what happened on the inside."

Supporter Maureen Simes, 43, of Salt Lake City, called the outcome a mistake.

"I hope this verdict will strengthen our cause," the teary-eyed Simes said.

Defense attorney Ron Yengich told reporters it was a fair trial and he hoped for leniency at DeChristopher's sentencing, given his client has no previous criminal history.

DeChristopher simply wanted to raise awareness about aggressive drilling in pristine western areas, and had no malicious intent, the lawyer said.

In closing arguments, however, U.S. Attorney John Huber said DeChristopher "derailed, disrupted and sabotaged" the December 2008 auction in the final days of the administration of President George W. Bush.

As Bush prepared to leave the White House for President Barack Obama, the Bureau of Land Management held one of its final quarterly oil and gas lease auctions, offering 131 parcels that included nearly 150,000 acres of land. The auction drew controversy from environmental groups that called the sales illegal.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott Romney has said the case was not about "Big Oil" or the federal government, but about DeChristopher breaking the law.

His trial drew colorful courthouse demonstrations by hundreds of supporters.

On the day of the 2008 auction, DeChristopher dressed casually, unlike the average bidder, but posed as one of them. He said later he felt the stunt would make a stronger statement than merely protesting with demonstrators outside the BLM offices.

He didn't deny disrupting the auction and hadn't planned on actually winning the bids, but instead his intent was to simply raise the price of the leases closer to fair market value.

Federal prosecutors say he is the only person ever charged with failing to make good on bids at a lease auction of public land in Utah. They had offered plea deals, but DeChristopher chose a trial.

A University of Utah economics student at the time of the bids, DeChristopher offered to cover the bill with an Internet fundraising campaign, but the government refused to accept any of the money.

DeChristopher testified during the trial that he didn't intend to actually bid on the leases but decided during the auction that he wanted to delay the sale so the new Obama administration could reconsider the move.

A federal judge later blocked many of the leases from being issued.

Fellow environmentalists and supporters have made DeChristopher a folk hero of the movement, insisting he was standing up to a federal agency that violated environmental laws by holding the auction in the first place.

"He wanted to give some hope to people," Yengich told jurors in closing arguments. "You may disagree with how he went about it, the government may disagree. But that was his purpose in being there. It wasn't to fool anybody."

Filming outside the courthouse on Thursday was Telluride, Colo., filmmaker George Gage, who with his wife has spent more than two years working on an hour-long documentary about DeChristopher.