SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah man hailed as a symbol of opposition to U.S. oil and gas drilling policy told a federal jury Wednesday that he had no advance plan to thwart a government auction where he won $1.7 million in leases he couldn't afford.
Tim DeChristopher took the stand in his own defense and said he felt compelled to take stronger action at the 2008 auction than the protesters who had gathered outside. He said it looked like he could only get into the auction — the last one of the Bush administration — if he was a bidder.
"I didn't have any intent to do anything inside the auction at that point. My impression was that I had to sign up," he said.
With bidder's paddle No. 70 in hand, DeChristopher said his plan in being there "was to wave a red flag about what was going on."
"Once I saw the way the auction was operating, there was an opportunity for me to cause enough of a delay so the new (Obama) administration could come in and reconsider the auction," he told the jury of eight men and four women as some took careful notes.
A federal judge later blocked many of the auction's leases from being issued, and fellow environmentalists have made a folk hero of DeChristopher, insisting he was standing up to a federal agency that violated environmental laws by holding the auction. Activists including actress Daryl Hannah have demonstrated outside the federal courthouse this week.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott Romney says the trial isn't about "Big Oil" or federal government. It's about one man's effort to "sabotage" to the bidding process, Romney said.
DeChristopher, 29, has pleaded not guilty to charges of interfering with and making false representations at a government auction that could get him up to 10 years in prison and a $750,000 fine.
He doesn't dispute the facts of the case but insisted Wednesday that he had no intent to harm anyone and his initial intention was to raise the bidding closer to fair market value.
"I wasn't sure if I was violating any rules," he said.
He said he then looked to the back of the room and saw one of his friends crying. It was those glances that Bureau of Land Management agent Daniel Love has testified made him suspicious — along with DeChristopher's attire, which didn't fit in with the other bidders.
"I was certainly moved by the fact that she was crying," DeChristopher said. "At that moment I felt that I had to do more and take a stand at the auction. I started winning parcels.
"It was a spur of the moment idea."
DeChristopher ended up as the highest bidder on $1.7 million in leases.
After Love approached him, DeChristopher said he called an acquaintance with fundraising experience about what options he might have and was under the impression that it would be possible to raise the money to pay for the leases. The government has refused to accept any money from that effort.
More than 20 supporters wearing orange scarves were in the courtroom Wednesday morning when one of DeChristopher's lawyers, Pat Shea, tried to cross-examine BLM official Kent Hoffman about inconsistencies in agency auction policies.
However, U.S. District Judge Dee Benson upheld frequent objections by prosecutors and stopped many of Shea's questions.Comment on this story
Love testified Tuesday that DeChristopher said he knew what he did was wrong after the auction and that he was prepared to accept punishment.
Other bidders left the auction as DeChristopher began with small bids, one at $500, then a later one for $25,000, Love said. By the end, he owed $1.7 million for 22,500 acres near Arches and Canyonlands national parks in Utah, and his bidding on about 20 of 131 parcels inflated the prices by a total of $300,000, Love said.
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. They have offered plea deals over the past two years, but he opted to go to trial.
DeChristopher was to be cross-examined by prosecutors later Wednesday.