Bogus bidder: BLM auction monkey-wrencher faces two felonies
Tim DeChristopher -- the monkey-wrenching University of Utah student who caused an environmental sensation by disrupting a high-profile oil and gas lease auction -- pinned his hopes on President Barack Obama to get him out of trouble.
But shortly after a federal grand jury handed up a two-count felony indictment Wednesday against the 27-year-old economics major, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar crushed any notion of help from Washington.
The Bureau of Land Management, Salazar warned, "will not tolerate future conduct which undermines the integrity of the bid process."
DeChristopher said he didn't regret bidding on 13 drilling parcels near Arches and Canyonlands with no intention of paying the $1.8 million for them. But he did believe the Obama administration might see the seriousness and morality of his mission to protect the future against global climate disruption.
"Those hopes were misplaced," he said. "Now my hopes rest on a jury of my peers."
DeChristopher faces up to 10 years in prison and $750,000 in fines under charges he organized and participated in a scheme to "defeat" federal law and made a fraudulent statement when he registered as a bidder at the BLM's Dec. 19 lease sale in Salt Lake City.
U.S. Attorney for Utah Brett Tolman said that, while he recognized people may have deeply held views on government behavior, they should express them lawfully.
"Rather than follow the rule of law, this defendant has, in his own words, repeatedly said he intended to disrupt the lease-bidding process," Tolman said. "Today's indictment is our response to his decision."
On the day of the auction, DeChristopher signed a bidder-registration form that warned it is a federal crime to "knowingly and willfully make any false, fictitious or fraudulent statements" and cited the maximum penalties: up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
"DeChristopher represented himself as a bona fide bidder," Tolman said, "when in fact he was not."
In addition to being charged with filing a false bidder form, DeChristopher is accused of violating the federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act of 1987, which set up rules for competitive bidding.
DeChristopher remains free, and Tolman has yet to issue a summons for his arraignment. His lawyers are noted Utah defense attorney Ron Yengich and Pat Shea, a BLM director under the Clinton administration.
Shea, who will continue to seek a plea deal, said he knew of previous instances in which individuals didn't pay up for their bids. "To my knowledge," he said, "there were no prosecutions."
The December auction had been in an uproar since Election Day, when the BLM posted a list of sales covering 360,000 acres of southern and eastern Utah redrock desert. The agency pulled some of the most disputed parcels. But conservation organizations said 77 parcels on 103,000 acres still were too close to Arches and Canyonlands national parks, Dinosaur National Monument and relic-rich Nine Mile Canyon.
A federal judge stopped the BLM from proceeding on those leases, and Salazar shelved them in February, accusing the Bush administration of rushing in its final days to drill. Salazar said Obama's Interior Department wants a more balanced approach that takes in environmental concerns along with petroleum industry needs.
But Salazar showed no mercy when it came to DeChristopher's bogus bidding.
"The indictment announced today contains serious allegations of fraud by a bidder in a BLM oil and gas lease sale," the Interior boss said. "In order to have a fair and orderly process for these sales, it is essential that all participants follow the prescribed rules."
DeChristopher, who has catapulted to folk-hero fame in environmental circles, said he didn't oppose oil and gas development on principle but did take a stand against harming sensitive public lands.
"This auction was a fraud against the American public and a threat to my future," he said. "My action exposed the unjust nature of that auction."
An industry representative said she has heard the same argument many times.
"There's a perception that natural-gas development in Utah is going to destroy the land, and that drastic action is necessary," said Kathleen Sgamma, government-affairs director for the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States. "If he understood that it's a small and temporary impact, and that the land is reclaimed to its original state, then maybe he wouldn't have felt compelled to take this action."
At a Dec. 19 auction, Tim DeChristopher, a 27-year-old University of Utah economics student, bid on 13 oil and gas lease parcels covering 22,000 acres near Arches and Canyonlands with no intention of paying.
On Feb. 4, President Barack Obama's Interior secretary, Ken Salazar, shelved 77 contested lease parcels, including the ones DeChristopher won, and scolded the Bush administration for rushing reviews of the disputed sites.
On Wednesday, DeChristopher was indicted on two felony counts. He faces up to 10 years in prison.