Jim Urquhart, Associated Press
Environmental activist Tim DeChristopher walks to the Frank E. Moss Federal Courthouse in Salt Lake City, Utah, Tuesday, July 26, 2011. Tim 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.
SALT LAKE CITY — An environmental activist is asking a federal appeals court to overturn his two-year prison sentence for disrupting an auction of drilling parcels on public lands near Utah's national parks.
Defense lawyers argue that Tim DeChristopher was wrongly convicted at a federal trial in Salt Lake City last summer. They say DeChristopher lacked criminal intent and was acting in civil disobedience to disrupt an auction of wilderness lands he believed was illegal. The judge refused to allow the former college student to offer that testimony.
Arguments are set for Thursday before the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Denver.
DeChristopher acted in bad faith and his conviction should stand, prosecutors said in papers filed with the appeals court in January.
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.
"DeChristopher never provided any evidence that the auction itself was invalid in any way," the U.S. Attorney's Office in Salt Lake City argued in in a 52-page brief. He ended up winning 14 drilling parcels for nearly $1.8 million.
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.
He is nearly halfway through his sentence at a remote federal prison in northern California and won't be released for Thursday's hearing, said Pat Shea, one of his lawyers and director of the Bureau of Land Management for two years during the Clinton administration.
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 government isn't explaining why it reversed course, Shea said.
"The Lord and the Bureau of Prisons work in mysterious ways," he said.
DeChristopher is considered a folk hero in the environmental community for sabotaging the auction and accepting the consequences. He says he plans to continue a life of social activism after prison as a minister. Shea and other supporters are encouraging the economics major to study for a graduate exam and apply for Harvard Divinity School in 2013.
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.
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The defense team cited U.S. District Court Judge Dee Benson's statements at sentencing to assert DeChristopher was wrongly prosecuted for political reasons.
Benson said, "If this hadn't been a continuing trail of statements by Mr. DeChristopher about his advocacy, as he calls it civil disobedience, and that he will continue to fight, and 'I am prepared to go to prison,' then others are going to have to be prepared to go with me, that causes me to feel under the sentencing laws before me that a term of imprisonment is required."
The two-year sentence was a year longer that the defense team expected, Shea said.