SALT LAKE CITY (CN) – An eco-activist who joined a federal auction on southern Utah oil and gas leases with the intent to derail the process may spend up to 10 years in prison after a judge decided the activist’s motives were irrelevant to the case.
A jury found 29-year-old Tim DeChristopher guilty on two felony counts following four days of proceedings and about five hours of deliberation at Frank E. Moss Courthouse.
DeChristopher violated the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act and fraudulently registered as a bidder at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) auction under the Bush administration in 2008.
A university student at the time, DeChristopher secured around $1.8 million in winning bids for more than 22,000 acres of land near Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.
Although he did not have funds to cover the bill at the time of the auction, DeChistopher quickly raised the money. A federal judge, however, said that proper steps had not been taken and halted the sale in the weeks that immediately followed the auction.
The Obama administration has since voided most of the leases.
But the case against DeChristopher, a folk hero to many concerned about climate change and opposed to current federal energy policies, continued.
Judge Dee Benson said that DeChristopher’s motives held no bearing on his guilt or innocence, and he strictly limited arguments to if, not why, DeChristopher participated in the auction.
Federal prosecutor Carlie Christensen responded to the verdict by saying evidence at trial proved DeChristopher interfered with the competitive biding process by falsely representing himself as a bona fide bidder.
DeChristopher’s supporters, many aligned with his nonprofit collective Peaceful Uprising, held vigil outside of the courthouse throughout the trial.
Flanked by colorful “Bidder 70” placards – a nod to DeChristopher’s BLM-assigned paddle – and united in song, at times led by Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary fame, the group included actress Daryl Hannah and a bevy of professors, scientists, students and others who had traveled to Salt Lake City.
DeChristopher withheld comment while arriving and departing from the courthouse, but addressed his supporters after the convictions were levied.
“Everything that went on inside that building tried to convince me that I was alone and that I was weak,” DeChristopher said on the courthouse steps.
“They tried to convince me that I was like a little finger in there on my own that could easily be broken. And all of you out here were the reminder, for all of us, that I wasn’t just a finger all alone in there, but that I was connected to hand with many fingers that was united as one fist.”
DeChristopher continued, “We know that now I’ll have to go to prison. We know that now that’s the reality. But that’s the job that I have to do. … Every wave on the ocean that has ever risen up and refused to lay back down has been dashed upon the shore. But its the very purpose of a wave to rise up, because once it rises above the horizon it finally has the perspective to see that it’s not just a wave, it’s a part of a mighty ocean. And the sharpest rocks on the wildest shore cannot break that ocean apart.”
The economics graduate faces a maximum sentence of ten years.
“Congress has enacted very specific laws designed to protect the integrity of the competitive bidding process involved in the issuance of oil and gas leases,” Christensen said. “As federal prosecutors, our responsibility is to enforce those laws and hold accountable those who violate them.”
She continued by saying, “Whether the BLM was correct in its decision to offer these parcels for oil and gas lease sales was not the question which this jury was asked to resolve. Mr. DeChristopher had several reasonable and lawful alternatives by which he could have expressed his objections to the sale of these oil and gas leases.”
DeChristopher’s legal team is preparing for sentencing and a possible appeal, said Patrick Shea, DeChristopher’s attorney and former head of the Bureau of Land Management under Bill Clinton.
“Tim’s case and its context in our time reminds me of the frog in the pot of water just before the heat is turned on,” Shea said.
“Scientifically, everyone knows the water will eventually boil if the heat is left on and the frog will die. In our complex society we have many institutions and the people who run them who want to make sure they keep in charge of their pot of water regardless of externalities. The restrictions Judge Benson placed on the judicial pot Tim was placed into certainly reflect the precedent of the judicial pot.”
Peaceful Uprising’s representative, Logan Froerer, said that he hoped the jury may now be exposed to the reasons for DeChristopher’s actions.
“We will push to expand and open the dialogues that have taken place here, especially the parts of the story that were hidden,” Froerer said. “We invite the jury members to now hear the whole story, including Tim’s motivations, and the stories that were silenced in court.”
Froerer continued, “Despite our disagreement with the verdict, we consider it a victory for democracy because Tim, through peaceful direct action, has forced the government to expose its oil-stained hands, which protect industry’s stranglehold on a corrupt future, over one that can be sustained.”
A film documenting the trial, titled “Bidder 70,” is slated to debut at Mountainfilm in Telluride, Colo. in late May.
DeChristopher’s sentencing is scheduled for June 23.