Activist says phony oil bid meant to cause delay

Reuters Business News
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Posted: Mar 18, 2011 2:40 PM
Activist says phony oil bid meant to cause delay

By James Nelson

SALT LAKE CITY (Reuters) - A Utah activist testified on Wednesday that he meant to delay a U.S. government oil lease auction and show his opposition to the process, when he submitted phony bids on over $1.7 million of land.

Tim De Christopher, 29, faces up to 10 years in federal prison and a $750,000 fine, if found guilty of fraud and violations of the U.S. Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act.

He has admitted that at a public auction held in December 2008, the month before President Barack Obama took office, he posed as an energy developer, and wielded his paddle No. 70 to submit phony bids on 14 land parcels.

De Christopher, who has won support for his actions from folk singer Peter Yarrow and actress Daryl Hannah, took the stand in his defense on Wednesday.

"Once I saw the way the auction was operating, I realized the bidding card I was given was an opportunity for me to cause enough of a delay for the new (Obama) administration to come in and reconsider the auction," De Christopher testified.

The auction, held in Salt Lake City, ended with De Christopher offering winning bids on 22,500 acres of land worth over $1.7 million. Most of the land was near Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park.

The Bureau of Land Management, an Interior Department agency, incurred $140,000 in costs to hold the auction and the parcels had to be reprocessed.

On Tuesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott Romney said in opening arguments that the environmentalist "artificially inflated prices" for government mineral rights and sabotaged the auction.

De Christopher engaged "in a criminal form of activism" when he could have protested peacefully, Romney said.

Ron Yengich, an attorney for De Christopher, in his opening arguments described De Christopher as a young University of Utah student who got caught up in the moment.

"I wanted to go inside and take stronger action and wave a red flag about what was going on there," De Christopher said.

Kent Hoffman, deputy state director in Utah for the Bureau of Land Management, has said in testimony that De Christopher's actions "led to a fair amount of confusion."

De Christopher was asked to pay over $81,000 as a down payment, and the balance within 10 days, but he admitted that did not intend to pay, Hoffman said.

Attorneys for De Christopher tried to bring in issues relating to the environment, but U.S. District Court Judge Dee Benson told them he did not want the trial to devolve into a debate on the environment.

Outside court, a couple dozen protesters in support of De Christopher on Wednesday sang "This Land Is Your Land." They have adopted his paddle No. 70 as a symbol for their cause.

Both sides rested their case on Wednesday and the jury will receive instructions before deliberating on Thursday.

(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Peter Bohan)