SALT LAKE CITY — About 100 people gathered outside the federal courthouse where an environmental activist was set to be sentenced Tuesday, protesting his conviction for running up bids in a 2008 government auction for leases near two Utah national parks.
Tim DeChristopher, 29, was convicted in March of interfering with and making false representations at a government auction. The maximum sentence is 10 years in prison.
Protesters cheered as he and his lawyer crossed a plaza to enter the courthouse, applauding and beating loudly on drums.
DeChristopher said he does not regret what he did, adding that it was "an act of civil disobedience. It's a conscious choice."
He is the only person ever prosecuted for failing to make good on bids at a lease auction of public lands in Utah.
The case has elevated him to folk hero status. The protest rally — complete with songs from Peter Yarrow of the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary — was organized at the plaza by DeChristopher's nonprofit group, Peaceful Uprising.
Participants wore orange sashes as a show of solidarity, and performed protest songs and staged public theater with oversized puppets of wildlife and DeChristopher. Many said they hoped DeChristopher would be given community service in lieu of prison time.
Federal prosecutors have objected to a U.S. Probation Office report that recommends a sentence less than the 10-year maximum. They contend the report underestimates the harm caused when DeChristopher ran up the price of 13 parcels of land near Utah's Arches and Canyonlands national parks, pushing the bids beyond the reach of other buyers in December 2008.
The former wilderness guide 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 and has said his actions were an act of civil disobedience.
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.
"He wanted to give some hope to people," defense attorney Ronald Yengich told jurors during the trial's closing arguments. "You may disagree with how he went about it, the government may disagree. But that was his purpose in being there. It wasn't to fool anybody."
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