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DeChristopher Trial: Day 2 midway

by Jesse Fruhwirth
- Posted // 2011-03-01 -

The trial was left hanging at 2 p.m. but it seems that DeChristopher's attorneys may get the opportunity to criticize alleged impropriety and illegality of the sale of oil and gas lease auctions in December 2008 that lead to DeChristopher's trial.

DeChristopher is charged with lying in order to disrupt that auction. He registered as a bidder and made bids on 14 parcels of land totaling $1.7 million in value, costing the Bureau of Land Management $140,000 in lost staff time, according to a BLM witness who testified today.

But DeChristopher has said publicly, prior to trial, that his action, even if it was illegal, was intended to interrupt and derail the actions of the government that he believed themselves were illegal and deleterious to the planet. The December 2008 lease auction was embroiled in controversy; critics accused the Bush administration of a last-minute give away to the oil and gas industry and complained that proper bureaucratic procedures may not have been followed. DeChristopher and his attorneys, however, have been barred from arguing that interrupting the lease sale was necessary to prevent other greater harms (follow the link to read the order).

But that didn't prevent them from sneaking in a bit of a hint of that argument to the jury today, and though the jury may not be in the room to hear it, U.S. District Judge Dee Benson has asked for a 4:30 p.m. presentation on why the defense believes the auction was illegal, improper or just bad. 

Benson is drawing a hard line, however. He told the defense that mere criticism of imperfections of the auction would be insufficient; the only way the evidence would be relevant for the jury would be if the auction had so many substantial flaws that "it ceased to be an auction" referred to in the law used to charge DeChristopher. "That could be a relevant defense for a criminal charge," Benson said, noting that he already has familiarity with that auction due to a resulting civil suit which he also oversaw, in which he ruled that the new Obama administration may have violated the law by stopping the parcels from being auctioned, not the Bush administrations preparation for it.

BLM's assistant special agent for investigations Daniel Love was under cross examination when the defense was able to slip in a few comments about DeChristopher's beliefs about the environment, climate change and mineral extraction--before being shut down with a sustained objection. Love had been reviewing his report that detailed his conversation with DeChristopher immediately after the auction was shut down to ask DeChristopher questions about his intentions and ability to pay.

In that same report were notes about DeChristopher's beliefs that he told the cop, namely that "he did not believe there was a legal avenue in which to affect change [in that particular auction]" and "he felt this whole process was a threat to him and his whole generation." Defense attorney Ron Yengich argued that the "completeness rule" should allow him to ask Love about those statements as a matter of completeness. Benson said the completeness rule only allows for that type of information to be heard as evidence "if it ought to be," and that, he said, was already decided pretrial.

The setup for the 4:30 p.m. speech criticizing the auction, however, came from another witness who may have "opened the door" as they say, to that type of evidence. Kent Hoffman, the BLM deputy director for Utah, was asked by prosecutors about the type of work they do to prepare for an auction. Prosecutors asked how and how much the BLM had lost as a result of the auction being canceled ($140,000 in staff time plus unaccounted for, indirect costs). Hoffman made reference to environmental impact statements and other types of bureaucratic procedures that precede a lease auction. On that basis, Yengich argued the jury should get to hear questions regarding the quality and completeness of those processes. "It did inform the jury that we do these things [like environmental impact statements] and the inference is you did them properly and if you didn't do them properly we don't put them on," Benson said.

But, "the trial is not about that and I'm not going to let it get dragged into that debate," Benson said. Well, he'll allow it at 4:30 p.m., but the jury will never hear that information unless Yenich and Pat Shea--who, strangely enough, is a former head of the BLM in Washington D.C. under Bill Clinton--can present such a stunning indictment of the auction that Benson is convinced that it was not an even an auction per se. That's a tall order. By all accounts, the auction itself involved bids, winners, losers, an auctioneer and other typical trappings.

One other curious thing came out today that I was not previously aware of. As DeChristopher was making his bids that day, he wasn't hearing numbers like $100,000 or $300,000 for a parcel, he was hearing more like 10, 20, 60 or 200. The parcels were auctioned by a dollar amount per acre and the highest bid that day was abou6t $240. So, really, DeChristopher almost surely had no idea how much he was actually bidding and obligated to pay. How did he react when BLM officers told him that he had purchased $1.7 million--nearly a quarter of all the proceeds from that days sales? "He laughed," Love testified. "Mr. DeChristopher explained to me that he was a student at the University of Utah, he was unemployed, and had no ability to fulfill his obligations. ... Mr. DeChristopher ... clearly stated that he had read the form he signed, the bidder registration form, that he knew what he was doing was a crime and he was prepared to deal with and face the consequences."



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