SALT LAKE CITY — Tim DeChristopher's defense team will get a chance Wednesday to vindicate the activist with testimony jurors will hear for the first time to learn what happened the day he monkey-wrenched a Bureau of Land Management auction.
It will be a tough go, however, after federal Judge Dee Benson reiterated late Tuesday that he's not going to put federal land management policies on trial in his courtroom. He said such details are not relevant to the charges against DeChristopher and what happened the day of the botched auction in December of 2008.
"There are different points of view on this matter to this day," Benson said, referencing the government's handling of the oil and gas leases. "No one ever agrees when it is finally over. Even when it is over and not over."
DeChristopher, 29, has said he deliberately submitted phony bids in the oil and gas lease auction because he disagreed with flawed land management decisions that opened up too much public land for oil and gas exploration. He's 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.
Defense attorney Ron Yengich said it was important for jurors to understand what was going on in the head of DeChristopher when he made choices that day and won 14 parcels of land valued at nearly $1.8 million.
But Benson said anything that fell outside the scope of what actually happened the day of the auction did not speak to the criminal allegations in the case, which rest on violating an onshore oil and gas leasing act and deliberately making false statement when he registered as a bidder.
"I don't see any basis that Mr. DeChristopher is not guilty because the auction may not have been a perfect auction," Benson said. "This trial is not a perfect trial, but it is still a trial."
The exchange between Benson and defense attorneys took place in an impromptu hearing convened after the second day of a trail that has captured national attention from environmentalists sympathetic to DeChristopher's "civil disobedience." Dozens of DeChristopher's supporters demonstrated outside the courthouse.
In testimony before the jury, a BLM special agent testified that he watched DeChristopher through much of the controversial auction and said it soon became clear that DeChristopher "was in it to win it."
Dan Love said DeChristopher raised suspicions early on with his behavior at the Dec. 19, 2008, auction because of his casual dress and whispered conversations with a man later identified as his roommate.
But when DeChristopher raised the bidder placard No. 70, Love said he was caught off guard.
"He had me fooled for a period of time," he said. "I began to scan the crowd to look for other disruptions."
Love said DeChristopher's actions, however, soon raised suspicion again because the man appeared "shocked" when he won his first bid, and then began to aggressively bid on parcels after that.
In plain clothes and specifically assigned to watch for potential disruptions inside the auction Love said he purposely moved to the front of the room to keep an eye on DeChristopher.
The auction was eventually stopped and Love testified that he asked to speak to DeChristopher alone. He said DeChristopher "laughed" when told the results of his bidding that day.
He added that DeChristopher confirmed to him his "pattern" of bidding to artificially drive up the prices of the leases being offered.
While DeChristopher's original plan was to disrupt the auction with a speech or some other demonstration, Love said "he was looking for much greater impact with the 70 placard."
In cross-examination, Yengich said Love was a professionally trained officer with 16 years of experience who could have stopped the fraudulent bidding if he chose to without letting it go on so long.
"You did say he looked out of place," Yengich said. "You could stop him from doing anything. You did not take that simple step."
Yengich also questioned Love about the federal agency's decision to forgive the bids made by others in the room as the result of the botched auction.
Successful bidders are required to submit what is called a "bonus bid" payment before the end of the day of the auction. It includes upfront leasing fees, plus other costs. Payment in full is due within 10 days.
In DeChristopher's case, he would have had to pay about $81,000 that day, but Love said DeChristopher told him had no means to pay and never intended to pay.
Other successful bidders that day were given the option to have their transaction "forgiven" because of the bogus bidding.
He pointed out that DeChristopher was not afforded the same opportunity and given the appropriate options.
"So forgiveness is not given to the sinner, but given to everyone else," Yengich said.
Love, in essence responded that, the "forgiveness option" was not extended to DeChristopher because it was the activist's actions that disrupted the process of the auction.
Earlier in the morning, Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott Romney said the prosecution of DeChristopher is "anything but a complicated case," adding that the laws are very straightforward.
Romney explained to the jury that multiple people opposed to the oil and gas auction were outside the agency's office expressing their displeasure. "They marched, they chanted, they made signs," Romney said. "They made their dissension known, and did so within the bounds of the law."
The defense has been stymied in their efforts to rope in DeChristopher's strong convictions when it comes to his actions the day of the auction.
In an earlier ruling, Benson said his attorneys are barred from raising the so-called necessity defense — that DeChristopher was forced to choose the lesser of two evils to right a wrong. That argument would have opened the door to introduce global warming and detrimental environmental impacts as motivators that drove DeChristopher to violate the law. Benson said the case failed to meet the legal test because other, lawful options were available to him.
But DeChristopher's defiant stand that day has earned a loyal throng of followers who say it is wrong for the government to bring criminal charges against someone who was practicing a peaceful act of civil disobedience.
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