A federal grand jury has indicted an environmental activist on criminal charges for disrupting a controversial land auction.
Tim DeChristopher was indicted Wednesday on two counts accusing him of monkey-wrenching the auction of oil and gas parcels near some of Utah's most famous landmarks. DeChristopher, 27, is charged with one count of violation of the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act and a count of making a false statement.
"Rather than follow the rule of law, this defendant has, in his own words, repeatedly said he intended to disrupt the lease bidding process," U.S. Attorney for Utah Brett Tolman said after the indictment was unsealed. "Today's indictment is our response to his decisions."
DeChristopher said Wednesday he has no regrets over what he described as an "ethical, necessary and direct action," to protest an "illegal and unjust auction."
DeChristopher is accused of making fake bids during a Dec. 19 auction by the Bureau of Land Management to run up the value of parcels of land near some of Utah's most famous national parks. He won 13 parcels of land but admitted that he had no intention of paying for them.
DeChristopher said he weighed his options of doing nothing and allowing the auction to continue or the prospect of prison.
"Prison was the better outcome than allowing this destruction to continue," he said.
When other bidders became suspicious at DeChristopher's actions, federal authorities took him into custody.
The auction itself was protested because the parcels being sold for gas and oil development were near national parks and wilderness areas. More than 100 parcels of land were dropped from the original auction list because of pressure from environmentalists, outdoor-retail industry groups and even the National Park Service because they were too close to tourist hotspots Arches and Canyonlands national parks.
The faux bidding became rather a moot point, however, when in February U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar canceled the lease sale of 77 parcels of Utah land totaling more than 100,000 acres. DeChristopher's "purchases" were among those that Salazar said did not pass the smell test and were approved as the result of "midnight actions" by the Bush administration.
Regardless of the reversal by the Obama administration, Tolman said politics played no role in his decision to go forward with the prosecution.
"I want to be very clear: This case is about facts and the law, not political positions," he said.
DeChristopher's attorney, Pat Shea, disputed that and said political motivation was in play, but added, "I'm Irish, so practically everything is political."
Shea said it will now be DeChristopher's fate to face a jury of his peers for what the attorney lauded as a "reawakening of the American tradition of civil disobedience," in which he contends no one was harmed and no property destroyed.
DeChristopher faces up to 10 years in prison and a $750,000 fine, if convicted. He was not arrested Wednesday, but will be issued a summons to appear in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City.
Tolman said he was open to the possibility of a plea bargain, but denied he had offered DeChristopher a deal prior to the indictment. Shea said he had hoped there was a chance at negotiations with Tolman's office, "but it is hard to reach a bargain when only one side is talking."
An auction last week led to 55 parcels of land being auctioned off without any incident, but DeChristopher's environmental protest prompted a lot of hand-wringing at the Utah Legislature, especially among rural conservatives.
Some lawmakers were chagrined to learn that no state law prohibited bidding on BLM land parcels without means to pay for them, so legislation was passed making it a third-degree felony.