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Activist who tied up oil leases near parks is convicted

An environmentalist has been convicted of making $1.8 million in false oil and gas drilling bids at a federal auction in a case that became a cause celebre among activists and Hollywood stars.
Image: Tim DeChristopher
Tim DeChristopher waves to supporters on Monday as he enters the federal courthouse in Salt Lake City, Utah.Jim Urquhart / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

An environmental activist was convicted Thursday of making $1.8 million in false oil and gas drilling bids at a federal auction in a case that became a cause celebre among avid supporters and Hollywood celebrities such as Robert Redford.

Tim DeChristopher, 29, made the bids to run up the price of 13 oil-and-gas leases near Utah's Arches and Canyonlands national parks and push the land beyond the reach of buyers.

But in the end, he lacked the ability to cover his bids.

It took a federal jury about five hours to convict DeChristopher on two felony counts of interfering with and making false representations at a government auction. He faces up to 10 years in prison and a fine of $750,000 at his June 23 sentencing.

DeChristopher remained stoic and resigned as the verdict was read, showing little emotion. Supporters, who filled more than half the courtroom, gasped and cried.

"Nobody told me this battle would be easy," he later told more than 50 emotional fellow activists on the courthouse steps. "Because of what you have done on the outside, it doesn't matter what happened on the inside."

Defense attorney Ron Yengich told reporters it was a fair trial and he hoped for leniency at DeChristopher's sentencing, given his client has no previous criminal history.

DeChristopher simply wanted to raise awareness about aggressive drilling in pristine western areas, and had no malicious intent, the lawyer said.

In closing arguments, however, U.S. Attorney John Huber said DeChristopher "derailed, disrupted and sabotaged" the December 2008 auction in the final days of President George W. Bush's administration.

As Bush prepared to leave the White House to make way for President Barack Obama, the Bureau of Land Management held one of its final quarterly oil and gas lease auctions, offering 131 parcels that included nearly 150,000 acres (60,705 hectares) of land. The auction drew criticism from environmental groups that called the sales illegal.

Image: Canyonlands National Park
CANYONLANDS, UT - OCTOBER 26: View of Monument Basin while mountain biking the White Rim Trail on October 26, 2007 in Canyonlands National Park, Utah. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)Doug Pensinger / Getty Images North America

Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott Romney has said the case was not about "Big Oil" or the federal government, but about DeChristopher breaking the law.

His trial drew colorful courthouse demonstrations by members of his Salt Lake City non-profit group Peaceful Uprising, and attracted hundreds of supporters wearing orange sashes as a symbol of solidarity, including actress Daryl Hannah and Peter Yarrow of the 1960s folk-singing trio Peter, Paul and Mary.

As the trial kicked off earlier in the week, demonstrators gathered in Pioneer Park for an early morning rally, singing Pete Seeger's famous protest song, "If I Had A Hammer," shouting chants against government control of public lands, and waving signs that called for DeChristopher to be set free.

On the day of the 2008 auction, DeChristopher dressed casually, unlike most bidders, but posed as one of them. He said later he felt the stunt would make a stronger statement than merely protesting with demonstrators outside the Bureau of Land Management offices.

He didn't deny disrupting the auction and hadn't planned on actually winning the bids, but instead his intent was to simply raise the price of the leases closer to fair market value.

Federal prosecutors say he is the only person ever charged with failing to make good on bids at a lease auction of public land in Utah. They had offered plea deals, but DeChristopher chose a trial.

A University of Utah economics student at the time of the bids, DeChristopher offered to cover the bill with an Internet fundraising campaign, but the government refused to accept any of the money.

DeChristopher testified during the trial that he didn't intend to actually bid on the leases but decided during the auction that he wanted to delay the sale so the new Obama administration could reconsider the move.

A federal judge later blocked many of the leases from being issued.

Fellow environmentalists and supporters, including actor and director Redford, have made DeChristopher a folk hero of the movement, insisting he was standing up to a federal agency that violated environmental laws by holding the auction in the first place.

Filming outside the courthouse was Telluride, Colorado, 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 is expected to debut at Colorado's Mountainfilm Festival at the end of May.

Gage hopes the project will be accepted by Utah's Sundance Film Festival, which was founded by Redford.