Jailhouse Rocked | Green Guide | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Jailhouse Rocked 

Enviro activist Tim DeChristopher rides the ups and downs of prison politics

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March 2012 was a fascinating month for reversals on the environmental scene, and most went in favor of the “greenies.”

The FBI announced investigations of two organizations founded and funded by the high-rolling, fossil-fuel barons—and GOP sugar daddies—Charles and David Koch, and a new documentary film, Koch Brothers Exposed, was released.

Forbes reported March 29 that John Rowe, retired CEO of Exelon—the nation’s most nuclear-powered utility, with 22 plants—had defected from the home team. He admitted what anti-nuke activists have been preaching all along: Nuclear power plants are not viable from an economic standpoint. Rowe stated, “I’ve never met a nuclear plant I didn’t like,” but conceded that, “new ones don’t make any sense right now.”

And a local environmental Robin Hood and the organization he co-founded also went on a March roller-coaster ride that involved two reversals. On March 9, two of activist Tim DeChristopher’s key supporters, Joan Gregory and Krista Bowers, took the overnight Amtrak to Reno and rented a car for the hour drive to the Federal Correctional Institution in Herlong, Calif. That’s where DeChristopher is serving a two-year sentence for monkey-wrenching a Bureau of Land Management gas- and oil-lease auction by posing as a bidder and “winning” leases for $1.8 million.

Bowers and Gregory checked in with prison officials and waited nearly an hour for DeChristopher to appear. They reported that another inmate finally had to inform the guards that his fellow prisoner wouldn’t be coming down for a visit because he’d been moved the night before from his minimum-security cell to near-complete isolation in a separate medium-security facility. After waiting in vain two more days to see their friend, Bowers and Gregory returned home wondering what had happened.


Political Prisoner
DeChristopher later revealed to his attorney that during his transfer to isolation, a Lt. Weirich told him that a prison-monitored e-mail he’d sent was the source of the problem. According to Peaceful Uprising co-founder Ashley Anderson, DeChristopher had wanted to communicate to a corporate contributor to his legal-defense fund that if the contributor didn’t halt its plans for outsourcing American jobs, DeChristopher would feel ethically compelled to return its $25,000 donation. The lieutenant also reportedly told DeChristopher that an unnamed congressperson had gotten wind of the e-mail and had pressured the Federal Bureau of Prisons to apply punitive measures. The prison refuses to disclose any details about the incident.

Peaceful Uprising, the nonprofit activist group co-founded by DeChristopher in the wake of the 2009 auction and his arrest, went into high gear mobilizing environmental groups across the nation and the Unitarian Universalist Church, of which DeChristopher is a member, to mount a phone blitz to discover why he had been thrown put in isolation and to demand accountability from the Federal Bureau of Prisons and Congress and that his human rights be protected.

To report on those efforts, Peaceful Uprising convened a March 29 press conference on the steps of Salt Lake City’s federal courthouse, where DeChristopher had been tried and convicted. The event turned out to be a celebration of sorts because the prison had suddenly reversed itself and moved DeChristopher back into his minimum-security cell the day prior.

The Rev. Tom Goldsmith, minister of the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City, made an impassioned appeal for justice for his parishioner’s upcoming May 10 appeal in 10th District Court in Denver. He said that DeChristopher had been openly defiant and had not backed down prior to his trial, which probably got him a stiffer sentence than if he had shown some false contrition. DeChristopher, instead, “stood his ground” for environmental sanity so all children, Goldsmith said, “including the children of Judge Benson, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, could have a future.” As a result, Goldsmith says, DeChristopher became “a political prisoner.”

Goldsmith decried a situation where a “mysterious congressperson ... can manipulate our judicial system under the cloak of distance and secrecy.” He called for an investigation of the situation so “at least the judicial system and legal systems of the country remain fair for all.” He speculated that the offending lawmaker would probably be “the first one to moan about the overreach of government.”

A handful of DeChristopher supporters remained afterward and, asking not to be identified, stated their belief that Sen. Orrin Hatch stirred the pot. U.S. District Court Judge Dee Benson, who heard the case and sentenced DeChristopher, is Hatch’s former chief of staff and remains a confidante of the senator. A controversy had erupted during DeChristopher’s trial, in which Hatch was accused of inappropriately contacting Benson to push for stern handling and sentencing of DeChristopher. Hatch's office denies both allegations.

Why an unsympathetic congressperson or someone in the prison would seek reprisals for DeChristopher’s correspondence remains a mystery, especially since if he follows through with his threat to return the donated funds, he’ll have fewer resources to mount his appeal. But if DeChristopher is in any way perceived as a “jailhouse lawyer” or a troublemaker on the inside, this incident may not be the last.


Blame Game
At the courthouse gathering, Henia Belalia, a local community organizer with Peaceful Uprising, thanked those who made hundreds of phone calls to the prison, to the district and national offices of the Federal Bureau of Prisons and to Congress. She echoed the demand for an investigation on behalf of all political prisoners and activists of other progressive causes, who she claimed are being harassed for challenging the corporate/political power structure.


DeChristopher’s pro bono attorney and former BLM chief, Pat Shea, struck a more conciliatory note, saying that while the abuse of power that led to DeChristopher’s move to the hole lies on the shoulders of persons who will most likely never be publicly known, he praised the right actions of whoever ordered DeChristopher back to minimum security.

In an interview afterward, Shea was reluctant to press for an investigation or to assign blame for the political manipulations outside the prison. Instead, he wants to remain totally focused on DeChristopher’s May appeal and not foment further public controversy. “Judge Benson did not allow Tim to describe for the jury his intent in actions he took. We believe that’s a Fifth Amendment due-process issue,” Shea says, noting the appeal will argue that judicial error likely prompted a guilty verdict.

The due-process argument is based on the idea that DeChristopher was essentially forced to “witness against himself” by being allowed to testify only regarding the more incriminating aspects of his actions. He was forbidden from explaining to the jury his motive to protect the environment and to stop a procedurally faulty auction. The jury also never heard that the government later invalidated most of the sales from the auction, declaring the leases should not have been let.

For now, DeChristopher is back in minimum security, where he has access to more reading materials and is able to correspond with the outside world. DeChristopher was able to graduate from college before going to jail, but Peaceful Uprising’s Anderson doesn’t think he’ll work on a graduate degree until he is released.

His freedom to engage in environmental activism is, however, limited. Due to the sensitivity of the upcoming appeal, under the advice of his attorney, he is not giving press interviews or making public statements.


Keep on Rocking in the Free World
In DeChristopher’s absence, Peaceful Uprising continues to mount environmental protests and conduct public-education campaigns under the leadership of co-founder Ashley Anderson and board chair Joan Gregory. It has taken a cooperative role with other organizations that have compatible missions, and the group offers training on effective nonviolent protests.

One of Peaceful Uprising’s current thrusts is holding fossil-fuel companies accountable for having committed in 2003 and 2004 the same offense for which DeChristopher is serving time, but for which they got only a slap on the wrist. Anderson points to the lead item on his organization’s website, which reads: “What do Tim DeChristopher and two oil companies (one of which is owned by William Koch) have in common? All three violated the Offshore Oil & Gas Leasing Reform Act, and all three made false statements to the government when they signed up to bid at a BLM oil- and gas-lease auction.” The revelations of this bid-rigging incident originally came from a former Koch executive turned whistle-blower.

Peaceful Uprising is still trying to recover from the loss in January of $88,000 of donor contributions and grant funds managed by International Humanities Center, a California nonprofit that shut down mysteriously and whose executive director, Steve Sugarman, has disappeared. According to Anderson and Belalia, despite the setback and the fact that its full-time staff is drawing highly reduced pay, Peaceful Uprising continues to lend moral support to other efforts like Occupy Salt Lake, Salt Lake Dream Team, United for Social Justice, and Move to Amend, which just collected more than 11,000 signatures to place a question on the November ballot, making it Salt Lake City's first successful citizen-initiated ballot measure. Citizens of Salt Lake City will voice whether or not corporations should enjoy the same rights as human citizens. The mostly symbolic action is one of several occurring in municipalities and states across the nation and is part of a larger movement to ultimately amend the Constitution or enact legislation to overturn 2010’s controversial 5-to-4 U.S. Supreme Court Citizens United decision, which allows corporations to spend unlimited amounts of cash to influence elections as their “free speech.”

Peaceful Uprising is celebrating Earth Day by conducting a free, open-to-all, nonviolent political-action training seminar April 21-22. The group hopes to channel momentum from the training into new actions in opposition to the upcoming July meeting in Salt Lake City of the conservative influence group American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), against the development of tar sands in central Utah, and in support of other environmental and social-justice projects. Details are available at tinyurl.com/75qlnrd. ⁄

Freelance writer and editor Jim Catano is an observer and supporter of progressive causes such as Occupy, Move to Amend and Peaceful Uprising.

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