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Lack of charges in Cliven Bundy standoff poses risk, group says

Published September 3, 2014 10:44 am

Public lands • It says delay may encourage further defiance and even anti-fed violence.
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Federal land managers want criminal charges filed in 35 cases related to the armed standoff between officers and militia members supporting Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy — and delay by prosecutors may be putting other federal officials at risk, an advocacy group charged Tuesday.

More than four months ago, the federal Bureau of Land Management referred the cases to Nevada's U.S. attorney's office, according to data released by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

But Nevada U.S. Attorney Daniel Bogden denies his office sits on criminal referrals from BLM and claims the PEER allegations are inaccurate and based on false assumptions.

Still, the group contends the feds' failure to promptly charge those who pointed high-powered weapons at officers will encourage more defiance of federal authority over public lands, and may even endanger BLM employees in Utah and other Western states, where anti-federal sentiment has run high.

"A criminal referral is the toughest option available to a land management agency like BLM, but that action is toothless if the U.S. attorney ignores it," said PEER's executive director, Jeff Ruch. "BLM cannot do its job without legal support from the Justice Department."

Similar concerns have been raised about the absence of citations issued in connection with an illegal ATV ride in Utah's Recapture Canyon on May 10 led by San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman to protest federal "overreach."

During the week prior, BLM Utah director Juan Palma had warned that those who violated the law would face legal consequences.

Bundy's son Ryan and some of the same armed militia members who stared down the feds in Bunkerville, Nev., joined Lyman and a few dozen other riders into the canyon, which has been closed to motorized use for several years to protect its many archaeological sites.

As far for the Bundy affair, Nevada U.S. Attorney said PEER's conclusions are erroneous.

"The requests for prosecution cited in the PEER news release have no connection to BLM's plan to enforce a federal court order and the roundup of Cliven Bundy's cattle that were unlawfully grazing on federally-managed lands," Bogden said in a prepared statement. "There were 36 cases opened by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Nevada on April 30, 2014, but they were citations issued at the 2013 Burning Man festival for things such as violating closure orders, driving with obstructed license plates, littering, possession of controlled substances, and creating a hazard or nuisance, all of which have been resolved and closed."

The standoff at Bundy's ranch began as BLM officers rounded up hundreds of cows from a sprawling desert corner of Clark County. It ended two weeks later in mid-April, when federal officers withdrew rather than risk a shootout with anti-government extremists who flocked to Bundy's defense. Many trained military-style rifles on federal officers, who were themselves equipped for combat.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security later weighed in with a threat assessment that concluded that the militias' perceived victory in Bunkerville "will likely inspire additional anti-government violence over the next year." The July 22 document pointed to "the recent murders of two Las Vegas police officers [as] the latest and most severe in a growing trend of anti-government violence."

Adding to PEER's frustration is the feds' refusal to release the names of those recommended for prosecution and the specific charges requested.

"Cloaking these cases only adds to the impression that this is a stall, not a deliberative pause," Ruch said. "Tolerating flagrant lawbreaking for years is how the present situation festered to fruition."

PEER's assertions are anchored in a database compiled by Syracuse University to track the criminal workloads of various U.S. attorneys offices. PEER intends to follow the outcome of the Recapture Canyon ride, but the database is current only through April 30, according to Ruch.

It is not clear whether the BLM has requested that charges be filed against any of the 50 people who rode into the Utah canyon May 10.

BLM's Utah office recently handed the results of its investigation to the U.S. attorney's office in Salt Lake City, according to BLM spokeswoman Megan Crandall. But her Justice Department counterpart, Melodie Rydalch, declined to comment.

"We are not going to talk about something that is under active investigation," Rydalch said. "We are trying to do our job and we have many factors that might not be readily available to the public. Internal deliberations are something we have to protect carefully."

During the Recapture protest, BLM officers did nothing to impede riders from entering the closed part of the canyon, and did not even show themselves. They did make a record of those who drove in.

Most protesters traveled an old dirt road and turned around after about a mile, where the path diverged into a narrow track through the brush. A small group continued the length of the canyon and BLM officers investigated the possibility that these riders damaged archaeological sites.

"We understand it takes awhile to complete an investigation and prepare a case for criminal charges, but it seems this is dragging on much longer than anyone would hope," said Shelley Silbert, of Great Old Broads for Wilderness, a group that has long advocated to keep Recapture motor-free.

"We feel BLM must bring people to justice who are breaking the law, and we are expecting that to happen in Recapture Canyon," she said. "It's critical that we see that people aren't above the law."

bmaffly@sltrib.com