An environmental activist who disrupted an oil and gas auction for land near Utah's national parks did so in protest, bringing attention to parcels that shouldn't have been for sale, his lawyers argued Thursday.
Tim DeChristopher's conviction in the case should be overturned because his move was a form of civil disobedience intended to protect the environment from an auction he believed to be illegal, Ron Yengich said in federal appeals court.
Yengich said that many of the 113 parcels up for sale were suspended from future bidding by the federal government because of attention drawn by DeChristopher's actions.
But federal prosecutor Dave Backman countered, saying DeChristopher signed a form explaining the rules before the December 2008 auction. Backman told a three-panel judge there are many ways to protest government actions, "but breaking the law is not one of them."
DeChristopher is asking the court to overturn his conviction. He is now serving two years in a federal prison in California after a conviction last summer in Salt Lake City.
The courtroom at the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals included DeChristopher's three lawyers and his mother, father and sister. DeChristopher was not at the hearing.
Backman said that no matter DeChristopher's intentions, the activist broke the law when he made bids for parcel lands he knew he wasn't going to pay for. DeChristopher ended up winning 14 drilling parcels for nearly $1.8 million.
DeChristopher contended during trial that the Bush administration rushed the auction without properly reviewing the parcels. Many of the parcels up for auction were later suspended soon after by President Barack Obama's Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in 2009.
DeChristopher told his lawyer recently that he will be transferred May 19 to a federal prison in Littleton, Colo., a request he made at sentencing to be closer to his parents and a sister.
The judge at his trial refused to allow the former college student to offer testimony that he disrupted the auction as an act of civil disobedience to protect wilderness lands.
His lawyers argue DeChristopher stepped inside the auction with no specific plan to disrupt the bidding after being offered a bidder's paddle by an auction official.
He signed a bid form acknowledging liability for any failure to pay, and when his bidding raised suspicions, he told an agent for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management that he had no money but was trying to drive up prices for oilmen, the government asserts.
His lawyers say he was singled out for prosecution because of his honesty, and that the government never took action against bidders at other auctions who failed to pay or bounced checks for their parcels.
DeChristopher is considered a folk hero in the environmental community for sabotaging the auction. He says he plans to continue a life of social activism after prison.