A prominent environmental activist has been released from an isolation unit at a federal prison and placed back into a minimum-security camp after choosing an ill-advised word in an email about one of his legal-defense donors, his lawyers said Thursday.
Tim DeChristopher, considered a folk hero in the environmental community, is serving two years for fraudulently bidding on drilling leases near Utah's national parks in an effort to keep the parcels undeveloped.
His lawyers said a campaign by influential environmental leaders and widespread media coverage Wednesday led the U.S. Department of Justice to order the Bureau of Prison to release DeChristopher from his 8-by-10-foot isolation cell in a remote part of northern California. Officials from both agencies refused comment Thursday.
The 30-year-old activist called his supporters Thursday to say he was out of isolation and back in a nearby minimum-security camp with full privileges after spending 20 days in the dock, said Pat Shea, one of his lawyers.
DeChristopher's reported punishment came after he sent an email to supporters that triggered an alert from an internal monitoring system for inmate correspondence.
The email somehow made it into the hands of an unidentified congressman who lodged a complaint and prompted a prison investigation, according to Shea and members of the activist's Salt Lake City-based group, Peaceful Uprising.
DeChristopher was asking supporters to check a rumor that one of his major donors to a legal defense fund was planning to move some manufacturing operations overseas. If true, "I'd threaten to return their money or give it to the workers if they're protesting," DeChristopher wrote, according to Shea.
The U.S. Bureau of Prison won't confirm or deny that DeChristopher was punished or discuss the nature of any of his emails. Federal prosecutors in Salt Lake City also refused comment Thursday.
Shea said DeChristopher's casual use of "threaten" was inadvisable "and I think he learned a lesson that you don't necessarily put all of your thoughts down in emails."
Shea added, "He's not locked in and can go back to his job in the kitchen and take a walk."
DeChristopher's friends planned to call a news conference Thursday afternoon in front of Salt Lake City's federal courthouse to protest his prosecution and prison treatment. They believed he was treated harshly by a trial judge who refused to let DeChristopher testify honestly about his environmental motives.
At sentencing, U.S. District Judge Dee Benson said DeChristopher might never have been prosecuted had he not hit the lecture circuit to defend his disruption of the federal oil-and-gas auction. He was a University of Utah economics student when he showed up at the Bureau of Land Management lease auction in December 2008.
DeChristopher has said he impulsively grabbed a bidder's paddle and ran up prices for drilling parcels near Arches and Canyonlands national parks. His bidding cost angry oil men hundreds of thousands of dollars in higher bids for their parcels, and DeChristopher ended up with $1.7 million in leases for which he couldn't pay. But when he later offered to cover it with an Internet fundraising campaign, the government refused to accept any of the money after the fact.
DeChristopher has said the administration of former President George W. Bush violated environmental laws in holding the auction. A federal judge later blocked many of his leases from being issued.
"My intent both at the time of the auction and now was to expose, embarrass and hold accountable the oil and gas industry, to the point that it cut into their $100 billion profits," DeChristopher said at his sentencing.
His lawyers plan to argue May 10 at the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Denver that Benson should have let DeChristopher testify he was acting in civil disobedience to disrupt an auction he believed was illegal.
For that reason, the lawyers are seeking to overturn his conviction on two felony counts of interfering with and making false representations at a government auction.
"Tim is back where he was and our focus is on the appeal," Shea said Thursday. "I think the mistakes Judge Benson made during trial will be remedied."