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Activist gets 2 years prison for thwarting auction

By Jennifer Dobner

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, July 26 2011 5:20 p.m. MDT

Environmental activist Tim DeChristopher is surrounded by media as he arrives to the Frank E. Moss Federal Courthouse in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, July 26, 2011. DeChristopher is scheduled to be sentenced on federal charges for bidding up prices at an auction of land leases that he couldn't pay for.

Jim Urquhart, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — An environmental activist who derailed a government auction of oil and gas leases near two national parks in Utah was sentenced Tuesday to two years in prison and fined $10,000.

Tim DeChristopher, 29, also was given three years of probation and taken into custody immediately. He was convicted in March of two felony counts of interfering with and making false representations at a government auction in 2008.

The maximum sentence was 10 years in prison.

The former wilderness guide is the first person to be prosecuted for failing to make good on bids at a lease auction of Utah public lands. He ran up bids on 13 parcels totaling more than 22,000 acres near Arches and Canyonlands national parks.

Before the sentencing, DeChristopher told reporters that he did not regret what he did, adding that it was "an act of civil disobedience. It's a conscious choice."

The case has elevated him to folk hero status. Peter Yarrow of the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary spoke and led a sing-a-long of about 100 protesters outside the federal courtroom in downtown Salt Lake City. The rally was organized by DeChristopher's nonprofit group, Peaceful Uprising.

Many had said they hoped DeChristopher would be given community service in lieu of prison time. "He's a decent young man, he should be allowed to move on with his life. He didn't harm anybody, and he didn't do it out of greed," said Delphi Alvarado, 53, of Salt Lake City.

After the sentencing, the protesters blocked the doors to the courthouse, many of them crying and shouting. Police officers and U.S. marshals watched, but no arrests were made.

Federal prosecutors had sought a stiff sentence and objected to a U.S. Probation Office report that recommended a sentence less than the 10-year maximum. They contended the report underestimates the harm caused when DeChristopher ran up the price of the parcels, pushing the bids beyond the reach of other buyers in December 2008.

He ended up with $1.7 million in leases on 22,500 acres. DeChristopher could not pay for the leases and his actions cost some angry oilmen hundreds of thousands of dollars in higher bids for other parcels.

"He lied, obstructed lawful government proceedings and caused extraordinary loss to others. Unilaterally, he played out the parts of accuser, jury and judge as he determined the fate of the oil-and-gas lease auction and its intended participants that day," prosecutors said in court documents.

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

DeChristopher has never denied his crimes. During the trial, DeChristopher testified that he didn't originally intend to bid on the leases, but decided during the auction that he wanted to delay the sale so the new Obama administration could reconsider the leases.

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

The case has become a symbol of solidarity for environmentalists, including celebrities like Robert Redford and Daryl Hannah.

Activists contend DeChristopher was simply standing up to a federal agency that had violated federal environmental laws by holding the auction in the first place.

Carlos Martins, a college student at the protest rally, said after the sentencing that "they gave him that sentence to deter us, but they're proving that by making civil disobedience impossible, they're making violent actions inevitable."

"This cannot end when we go home tonight," said Samuel Rubin, another protester. "We must now be the one to throw ourselves into the gears of the machine."

Associated Press writer Josh Loftin contributed to this report.

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