Trial begins for man who thwarted oil-gas auction
Monday, February 28, 2011; 10:01 PM
SALT LAKE CITY -- Hundreds of activists marched to the federal courthouse Monday to support a man who became an environmental folk hero by faking the purchase of $1.7 million of federal oil-and-gas drilling leases in an act of civil disobedience.
Tim DeChristopher, 29, has pleaded not guilty in U.S. District Court to felony counts of interfering with and making false representations at a government auction.
DeChristopher's fate will be in the hands of a jury - eight men and four women - once opening statements are made in the case on Tuesday. The trial is expected to last until Friday.
The possibility of just one juror sympathetic to environmental causes could keep DeChristopher from a conviction, although a hung jury could result in him being retried.
Prosecutors have offered DeChristopher multiple plea deals over the past two years, but he rejected those, opting instead to go to trial.
The trial attracted about 400 people wearing orange sashes as a symbol of solidarity, including actress Daryl Hannah. They gathered in Salt Lake City's Pioneer Park for an early morning rally, singing Pete Seeger's famous protest song "If I Had Hammer," shouting chants against government control of public lands and waving signs that called for DeChristopher to be "set free."
DeChristopher doesn't dispute the facts of the case and has said he expects to be convicted. He faces up to 10 years in prison and $750,000 in fines if he's right.
On Dec. 19, 2008, he grabbed bidder's paddle No. 70 at the final drilling auction of the Bush administration and ran up prices while snapping up 13 leases on parcels totaling 22,500 acres around Arches and Canyonlands national parks.
The former wilderness guide - a University of Utah economics student at the time - ended up with $1.7 million in leases he couldn't pay for and cost angry oil men hundreds of thousands of dollars in higher bids for other parcels.
"We were hosed," said Jason Blake of Park City, shortly after the consulting geologist was outbid on a 320-acre parcel. "It's very frustrating."
DeChristopher, who plans to testify, has said the government violated environmental laws in holding the auction. A federal judge later blocked many of the leases from being issued.
DeChristopher had offered to cover the bill with an Internet fundraising campaign, but the government refused to accept any of the money after the fact.