Lawyer: Fake Utah drilling bids were 'sabotage'

By Chi-chi Zhang

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, March 1 2011 3:20 p.m. MST

Environmental activist Hillary Hase marches in downtown Salt Lake City Monday, Feb. 28, 2011. Hundreds of demonstrators showed up to march and support Tim DeChristopher on the opening day of his federal trial on charges of bidding up prices at an auction of land leases that he couldn't pay for.

Jim Urquhart, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Tim DeChristopher, ex-wilderness guide, looked like trouble.

He stood out among the bidders at an oil-and-gas lease auction. He didn't bring with him any experts, diagrams or maps. Dressed shabbily, all he had with him was a backpack.

As his fellow environmentalists protested outside, he began bidding. When it was all over, he owed $1.7 million on more than a dozen leases near Utah's Arches and Canyonlands national parks.

He had no way of paying, no doubt that he would get in trouble and no qualms about any of it.

To Hollywood stars and activists, the 29-year-old DeChristopher has become a folk hero, standing up against a federal agency they say violated environmental laws in holding the auction. Prosecutors on Tuesday called him a saboteur.

DeChristopher is accused of placing fake bids on the leases to run up prices. He has pleaded not guilty, but doesn't dispute the facts of the case and has said he expects to be convicted.

In opening statements in federal court, Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott Romney said the trial isn't about "Big Oil" or federal government. He said DeChristopher knowingly placed millions of dollars in bids at the 2008 auction without any intention of paying.

Defense attorneys passed on making an opening statement.

The first to testify was Daniel Love, a special agent at the Bureau of Land Management, which ran the auction.

Dressed in plainclothes, Love was among the officers sent to the auction to prevent any disturbances. A group of environmentalists had amassed outside. He said he wondered whether someone might protest inside the room.

"My biggest concern was that someone would cross the line from a lawful disruption to an illegal disruption," he said.

Love said he quickly noticed DeChristopher, mainly for how his attire was different from the other bidders. During the auction, DeChristopher kept looking at the door at the back of the room.

When DeChristopher bid, Love became less concerned. When he won one with a $500 bid, DeChristopher looked shocked.

"At this point, he was in it to win it. There was no regard for ceiling price," Love said.

Then, DeChristopher won another, this time for $25,000. He slumped in his chair, and hung his head — hardly the look of an oil man or businessman who had just corralled bids on potentially lucrative oil-and-gas leases.

That was when he realized he couldn't pay the bids, Love said DeChristopher later told him.

DeChristopher said he had initially planned to create a disruption inside the room, but backed off because there were too many law enforcement agents, according to Love.

DeChristopher believed the bidding tactic was working because he saw other bidders leaving the auction, Love said.

Love estimated that DeChristopher's bidding inflated the price by $300,000 total on about 20 of 131 parcels up for auction that day. DeChristopher ended up with 14 other parcels among his bids.

DeChristopher later said he knew what he did was wrong and that he was prepared to accept the punishment, Love said.

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

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

DeChristopher is charged with interfering with and making false representations at a government auction. He faces up to 10 years in prison and $750,000 in fines if he's convicted.

Prosecutors have offered DeChristopher plea deals over the past two years, but he opted to go to trial. He plans to testify.

The case has become a symbol of solidarity for environmentalists who want to protect the parcels of land, which totaled 22,500 acres around the two national parks.

About 400 people, including actress Daryl Hannah, gathered for a rally Monday, singing Pete Seeger's protest song "If I Had Hammer," criticizing government control of public lands and waving signs that called for DeChristopher to be "set free."

Hannah said she believes DeChristopher's actions have been justified because the federal judge turned back the leases.

"He took a moral stand against injustice. ... He's already been effective," Hannah said. "This case has the potential to be quite historic and pivotal in terms of our rights as citizens to peacefully protest and practice civil disobedience."

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.

Not everyone attending the protest march Monday supported DeChristopher's actions.

Real estate agent Robert Valentine mingled with environmentalists and talked about the need for Utah to use its natural resources to create jobs and fund the state's schools.

"I want to protect the natural resources. My hobby is hiking," the 69-year-old Valentine said. "But I think Utah ought to be allowed to have more control over the resources more than we do."

The trial was expected to last until Friday.

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