Activist gets 2 years prison for thwarting auction

JENNIFER DOBNER - Associated Press
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Environmental activist Tim DeChristopher is surrounded by media as he arrives to the Frank E. Moss Federal Courthouse in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, July 26, 2011. DeChristopher is scheduled to be sentenced on federal charges for bidding up prices at an auction of land leases that he couldn't pay for. (AP Photo/Jim Urquhart)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — An environmental activist who derailed a government auction of oil and gas leases near two national parks in Utah was sentenced Tuesday to two years in prison and fined $10,000.

Tim DeChristopher, 29, also was given three years of probation. He was convicted in March of two felony counts of interfering with and making false representations at a government auction in 2008.

The maximum sentence was 10 years in prison.

He is the first person to be prosecuted for failing to make good on bids at a lease auction of Utah public lands. He ran up bids on 13 parcels totaling more than 22,000 acres near Arches and Canyonlands national parks.

DeChristopher was immediately whisked away by federal marshals to the Davis County Jail in Farmington. Defense attorney Pat Shea said they've requested DeChristopher be sent to a federal prison in Littleton, Colo., because it is near his family.

The defense plans an appeal, Shea said. "There's been a serious abuse of justice."

In a roughly 35-minute address to the court, DeChristopher restated his belief that his actions were an act of civil disobedience necessary to highlight the impending threat of climate change to the planet.

"My intent both at the time of the auction and now was to expose, embarrass and hold accountable the oil and gas industry, to point that it cut into their $100 billion profits," DeChristopher told U.S. District Judge Dee Benson.

DeChristopher said he would accept whatever punishment Benson imposed, but added that time in prison would not silence him or change his viewpoint.

"You have authority over my life, but not my principles. Those are mine," DeChristopher said. "I'll continue to confront the system that threatens our future."

The case has elevated DeChristopher to folk hero status. Since his arrest, the former wilderness guide has become a vocal advocate for the environmental movement and encouraged others to take similar steps of civil disobedience.

Benson said that while he didn't disagree with DeChristopher's concerns over climate change, he could not excuse the activist's blatant disrespect for the rule of law.

"I'm not saying there isn't a place for civil disobedience," the judge said. "But it can't be the order of the day."

Benson said one of the great myths of the case was that he had no choice but to try and derail the government auction.

"Mr. DeChristopher had many other lawful ways to go against or protest the auction," Benson said.

After the sentencing, DeChristopher supporters in Benson's courtroom broke into song and one person shouted, "This is not justice."

Outside the downtown courthouse, a protest gathering of about 100 people draped in orange sashes blocked the doors to the courthouse, many of them crying and shouting.

Protesters used plastic ties around their wrists to form a human chain that moved into the streets, blocking car and light rail traffic, police spokeswoman Lara Jones said.

Twenty-six people were arrested and hauled off on a bus to the Salt Lake County Jail, she said.

Federal prosecutors didn't ask Benson for the 10-year maximum, but advocated for a significant sentence that would serve as a deterrent to others.

They said a U.S. Probation Office report, which recommended a sentence less than the maximum, underestimated the harm caused when DeChristopher ran up the price of the parcels, pushing the bids beyond the reach of other buyers in December 2008.

He ended up with $1.7 million in leases on 22,500 acres. DeChristopher could not pay for the leases and his actions cost some angry oilmen hundreds of thousands of dollars in higher bids for other parcels.

Assistant U.S. Attorney John Huber said the sentence was a significant enough deterrent.

"If a sentence was perceived as too light or inconsequential, it could be seen as a reasonable price to pay to grab the limelight or gain fame," Huber said.

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 has never denied his crimes. During the trial, DeChristopher testified that he didn't originally intend to bid on the leases, but decided during the auction that he wanted to delay the sale so the new Obama administration could reconsider the leases.

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

The case has become a symbol of solidarity for environmentalists, including celebrities like Robert Redford and Daryl Hannah. Peter Yarrow of the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary, led a sing-a-long and rally outside the courthouse in the hours leading up to the hearing.

The event was organized by DeChristopher's nonprofit group, Peaceful Uprising.

Activists contend DeChristopher was simply standing up to a federal agency that had violated federal environmental laws by holding the auction in the first place.

Carlos Martins, a college student at the protest rally, said after the sentencing that "they gave him that sentence to deter us, but they're proving that by making civil disobedience impossible, they're making violent actions inevitable."

"This cannot end when we go home tonight," said Samuel Rubin, another protester. "We must now be the one to throw ourselves into the gears of the machine."


Associated Press writer Josh Loftin contributed to this report.