Saturday, March 05, 2011

Tim DeChristopher Trial Begins In Utah's Oil-Gas Lease Auction Case

Feb. 28, 2011 Huffington Post

SALT LAKE CITY — Hundreds of activists marched to the federal courthouse
Monday to support a man who became an environmental folk hero by faking
the purchase of $1.7 million of federal oil-and-gas drilling leases in an
act of civil disobedience.

Tim DeChristopher, 29, has pleaded not guilty in U.S. District Court to
felony counts of interfering with and making false representations at a
government auction.

DeChristopher's fate will be in the hands of a jury – eight men and four
women – once opening statements are made in the case on Tuesday. The trial
is expected to last until Friday.

The possibility of just one juror sympathetic to environmental causes
could keep DeChristopher from a conviction, although a hung jury could
result in him being retried.

Prosecutors have offered DeChristopher multiple plea deals over the past
two years, but he rejected those, opting instead to go to trial.

The trial attracted about 400 people wearing orange sashes as a symbol of
solidarity, including actress Daryl Hannah. They gathered in Salt Lake
City's Pioneer Park for an early morning rally, singing Pete Seeger's
famous protest song "If I Had Hammer," shouting chants against government
control of public lands and waving signs that called for DeChristopher to
be "set free."

DeChristopher doesn't dispute the facts of the case and has said he
expects to be convicted. He faces up to 10 years in prison and $750,000 in
fines if he's right.

On Dec. 19, 2008, he grabbed bidder's paddle No. 70 at the final drilling
auction of the Bush administration and ran up prices while snapping up 13
leases on parcels totaling 22,500 acres around Arches and Canyonlands
national parks.

The former wilderness guide – a University of Utah economics student at
the time – ended up with $1.7 million in leases he couldn't pay for and
cost angry oil men hundreds of thousands of dollars in higher bids for
other parcels.

"We were hosed," said Jason Blake of Park City, shortly after the
consulting geologist was outbid on a 320-acre parcel. "It's very

DeChristopher, who plans to testify, has said the government violated
environmental laws in holding the auction. A federal judge later blocked
many of the leases from being issued.

DeChristopher had offered to cover the bill with an Internet fundraising
campaign, but the government refused to accept any of the money after the

Federal prosecutors have acknowledged that DeChristopher is the only
person ever charged with failing to make good on bids at a lease auction
of public lands in Utah.

"There's people who didn't have the money, but they didn't have the intent
to disrupt" the auction, assistant U.S. attorney John Huber told The
Associated Press in 2009.

On Monday, the protesters – from toddler to seniors – marched through
downtown to a plaza across from the courthouse where they continued with
speech-making and singing, some led by Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul & Mary.
The group also staged a mock trial with participants standing nearly 9
feet tall on stilts and wearing oversized papier-mache masks representing
DeChristopher, the government and a NASA climate change expert.

"I'm here to support Tim, whose selfless act saved Utah's red rock
wilderness from exploitation," said Salt Lake City resident Sheri Poe
Bernard, 55, who said she believes the lease parcels were not properly
reviewed for environmental impact. "This is a very important issue ... and
I think it's a travesty that our federal government would put Tim on trial
when George W. Bush is not being prosecuted."

Bernard said she wrote to President Barack Obama, asking him to take
notice of DeChristopher's trial and make Utah ground zero for a national
conversation about climate change.

DeChristopher was not at the rally, but he raised his arm and waved to the
loudly cheering crowd as he entered the courthouse.

Hannah, who has been a visible figure in many environmental causes, called
him a "bright, beautiful example" of the kind of activism needed across
the country, particularly at a time when people are "at the bottom of
feeling their disempowerment."

Hannah said she believes DeChristopher's actions already have been proven
justified because a federal judge turned back the leases.

"He took a moral stand against injustice. ... He's already been
effective," Hannah said. "This case has the potential to be quite historic
and pivotal in terms of our rights as citizens to peacefully protest and
practice civil disobedience."

Filming outside the courthouse was Telluride, Colo., filmmaker George
Gage, who with his wife has spent more than two years working on an
hour-long documentary about DeChristopher. A rough cut of the film will
debut at Colorado's Mountainfilm Festival at the end of May, Gage said.
Gage also hopes the project will be accepted by Utah's Sundance Film
Festival for a screening. The festival was founded by actor and director
Robert Redford, who is also a DeChristopher supporter.

"I just think his whole message is so important," George Gage, 70, said.
"We were really impressed by what motivated him. He is so much aware that
we are wrecking this planet ... Tim is really concerned about what kind of
world that his children or my grandchildren are going to inherit."

The protest march had at least one detractor. Highland real estate agent
Robert Valentine mingled with environmentalists and talked about the need
for Utah to "exploit" its natural resources to create jobs and fund the
state's schools.

"I want to protect the natural resources. My hobby is hiking," the
69-year-old Valentine said. "But I think Utah ought to be allowed to have
more control over the resources more than we do."

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