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Environmentalist Tim DeChristopher Found Guilty of Sabotaging Oil and Gas Auction; Faces up to 10 Years in Jail

March 04, 2011

A federal jury in Salt Lake City has convicted environmental activist Tim DeChristopher of two felony counts for disrupting the auction of more than 100,000 acres of federal land for oil and gas drilling. DeChristopher was charged in December 2008 with infiltrating a public auction and disrupting the Bush administration’s last-minute move to auction off oil and gas exploitation rights on vast swaths of federal land. A student at the time, DeChristopher posed as a bidder and bought 22,000 acres of land with no intent to pay in an attempt to save the property from drilling. He faces up to ten years in prison. DeChristopher joins us today to talk about the verdict. [includes rush transcript]


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: A federal jury in Salt Lake City has convicted environmental activist Tim DeChristopher of two felony counts for disrupting the auction of over 100,000 acres of federal land for oil and gas drilling. DeChristopher was charged in December 2008 with infiltrating a public auction and disrupting the Bush administration’s last-minute move to auction off oil and gas exploration rights on vast swaths of federal land. A student at the time, DeChristopher posed as a bidder and bought 22,000 acres of land with no intention to pay in an attempt to save the property from drilling. He faces up to ten years in prison.

AMY GOODMAN: The jury deliberated for nearly five hours yesterday before reaching its decision. After the verdict, DeChristopher emerged from the courthouse and addressed his supporters.

TIM DeCHRISTOPHER: Everything that went on inside that building tried to convince me that I was alone and I was weak. They tried to convince me that I was like a little finger out there on my own that can 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 a hand with many fingers that could unite as one fist and that that fist could not be broken by the power that they have in there.

That fist is not a symbol of violence. That fist is a symbol that we will not be misled into thinking we are alone. We will not be lied to and told we are weak. We will not be divided, and we will not back down. That fist is a symbol that we are connected and that we are powerful. It’s a symbol that we hold true to our vision of a healthy and just world, and we are building the self-empowering movement to make it happen. All those authorities in there wanted me to think like a thinker. But our children are calling to us to think like a fist.

And we know that now I’ll have to go to prison. We know that now that’s the reality. But that’s just a job that I have to do. That’s the role that I face. And many before me have gone to jail for justice. And if we’re going to achieve our vision, many after me will have to join me, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Tim DeChristopher speaking outside the federal courthouse in Salt Lake City yesterday. He now joins us live from Salt Lake City.

Tim, welcome to Democracy Now! Explain first exactly what you did and when you did it. Talk about leaving your classroom after you took a graduate test in December. What year was it?

TIM DeCHRISTOPHER: It was December 19th, 2008. And as you said, I finished up my final exam that morning and went to the BLM oil and gas auction that was being held in downtown Salt Lake, with the intent to draw enough attention to what was going on there that the government could actually stop and rethink their actions, which at that point the Obama administration had already indicated that they knew it was illegitimate and that if they had any opportunity, they would like to stop what was happening, but it was unclear that they would actually have that power if the auction was completed.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And how did you actually —

TIM DeCHRISTOPHER: So I went there and was just looking for any opportunity to do that. And when I walked in, I was asked if I wanted to be a bidder. And so, I said yes. And once I got inside then, I saw the opportunity to really stand in the way of what was going on and just couldn’t pass up that opportunity, so I started bidding and eventually started winning parcels and winning every parcel until they stopped the auction and took me out.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, how did they — so, all they did was ask you if you wanted to be a bidder? You didn’t have to prequalify or deposit a check or in some way show some bonding just to be able to bid on the land?

TIM DeCHRISTOPHER: No, I just had to show a driver’s license and fill out a short form with my name and address and that sort of thing.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you expect you would be able to do this?

TIM DeCHRISTOPHER: No. No, I didn’t expect that at all. You know, I expected to go in there and make a speech or something like that. And other folks that were in the protest outside told me that I would just get dragged out by security at the door. And I said, "Well, then let’s get dragged out by security at the door." And no one would go in with me, so I went in, and rather than drag me out, they asked me if I wanted to be a bidder.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, then talk about what you proceeded to do, Tim.

TIM DeCHRISTOPHER: Well, seeing the opportunity inside to really stand in the way of what was going on, I couldn’t turn my back on that opportunity, and so first started bidding to drive up the prices, and did that for quite awhile. Most of the parcels were going for $10 or $12 an acre, and so I was driving those prices up, and then, finally, decided that I had to actually win those parcels and started doing that and won about 14 parcels before they stopped the auction and then took me into custody.

JUAN GONZALEZ: So, in other words, at some point they recognized that you were not a genuine bidder? How did that happen?

AMY GOODMAN: How did they recognize that you were not an oil or gas company?

TIM DeCHRISTOPHER: Well, there was actually a lot of testimony from the BLM law enforcement agents that were there at the auction. During the trial, he testified quite a bit to the fact that they knew from the moment that I walked in that I wasn’t a normal oil and gas bidder. They didn’t recognize me from these auctions that were held on a regular basis. And they noticed that I was younger, that I was dressed different, that I didn’t act like the others. And so, they indicated that they were suspicious the whole time, and they just needed to wait until it was absolutely clear, that there was no doubt in their mind, that I was not an oil and gas company representative.

AMY GOODMAN: So, once you did this and you bought this land, picking up paddle number 70, did you plan to pay for it?

TIM DeCHRISTOPHER: Well, I didn’t know what the options were at the time. That was still somewhat unclear. I talked to some folks right afterwards that afternoon who offered to help with fundraising. And it wasn’t until the next day that former director of the BLM, Patrick Shea, who directed the agency under the Clinton administration, contacted me and offered to represent me. And then he informed me that there were a lot of different ways that these things could play out and a lot of different options and that raising the money was still a legitimate possibility. And so, we raised the money very quickly, actually, surprisingly quickly, and offered the initial payment to the BLM for the parcels that I had won. But they rejected that payment and said that I wasn’t bidding under normal circumstances, so they couldn’t accept that payment anyway. But that’s all stuff that the jury was not allowed to know. We weren’t allowed to tell the jury that I offered the payment to the BLM. All we were allowed to talk about in the trial was what happened on December 19th and nothing else.

AMY GOODMAN: And this ultimately invalidated the auction — is that right? — your participation. So explain what happened, from the Bush administration into the Obama administration.

TIM DeCHRISTOPHER: Well, it wasn’t actually my participation that invalidated the auction. It was my participation that drew a lot of attention to what was going on in the auction. But there were other complaints against the auction and lawsuits against the auction, which once the new administration came in, they invalidated almost the entire thing and admitted that they weren’t following their own rules in the first place. And it wasn’t because of my participation, but because of the way that they had operated and locked the public out of the decision-making process for public land, that the auction was invalidated. But again, that’s something that the jury was not allowed to know. The verdict in this case was a pretty much foregone conclusion, because we weren’t allowed to tell the jury any of that stuff.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And on what basis did the judge exclude this other important information, like, for instance, the fact that you were raising the money to actually pay for what you had bid for?

TIM DeCHRISTOPHER: The judge said that it was irrelevant and that it would confuse the jury, so they shouldn’t be allowed to know it.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what was the picture that the jury —

TIM DeCHRISTOPHER: That was a frequent refrain that we heard during this trial.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Tim DeChristopher, what was the picture that the jury got? What did they understand with what was limited, what they weren’t able to know?

TIM DeCHRISTOPHER: I was able to explain to them some of my views. I was able to talk about what my intent was there at the auction. I was limited to pretty brief comments about that, but I was able to explain to them why I was there, what I was thinking. But I wasn’t able to introduce any evidence that supported what I was thinking. I wasn’t able to introduce anything that happened before December 19th, about the corruption within the Department of the Interior in the Bush administration, or anything that happened after December 19th, either me raising the money or the auction being canceled. So, I was only able to throw my views out there as unsubstantiated claims of what I was thinking.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the reason you did what you did, Tim?

TIM DeCHRISTOPHER: Well, I saw this auction as, first off, a fraud against the American people, that the government wasn’t following their own rules and was locking the public out of the decision-making process for public property. I also saw it as a real threat to my future, because of the impact on climate change that this kind of "drill now, think later" mentality was having, and an attack on our public lands, on our natural heritage, in pretty pristine and irreplaceable areas in southern Utah.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And is it your intention to appeal the verdict in any way?

TIM DeCHRISTOPHER: And so, it my intent was to stand in the way of that.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Is it your intention to appeal the verdict in any way?

TIM DeCHRISTOPHER: I have no idea. We haven’t really talked about that with my legal team. That’s something that will happen after sentencing.

AMY GOODMAN: I just wanted to read a part of a letter that was signed by Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben and Terry Tempest Williams, and it says, "When Tim disrupted the auction, he did so in the fine tradition of non-violent civil disobedience that changed so many unjust laws in [this] country’s past. Tim’s [upcoming] trial is an occasion to raise the alarm once more about the peril our planet faces. The situation is still fluid" — and it goes on, because this was written before the trial date. But it was under the Bush administration that you did this. Under the Obama administration, then-Interior Secretary, the former senator from Colorado, Ken Salazar, said these lands — what statement did he make? He said these lands would not be sold?

TIM DeCHRISTOPHER: Initially they just stopped the auction and said that they were going to take a second look at everything that was going on. And once they did, they divided the parcels into three categories: those that should never be sold or never be drilled for oil; those that are appropriate for drilling at a future date, that could — that are eligible for being re-auctioned because they’re surrounded by existing oilfields; and those that need more study, just because nobody had ever really looked at where they were or what kind of qualities those lands really had.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And how big is the amount of land that they initially agreed to put up for sale?

TIM DeCHRISTOPHER: I believe the initial agreement was somewhere around 300,000 acres, but a lot of that was taken off because of the initial wave of protests from the National Park Service and others.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, under the Obama administration, it was then that you were charged, is that right, Tim DeChristopher?

TIM DeCHRISTOPHER: Right. It was almost two months after the auction had been invalidated that the Obama Justice Department pressed those charges against me.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, in that same letter by Naomi Klein and Bill McKibben and Terry Tempest Williams, they say, "The government calls that 'violating the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act' and thinks he should spend ten years in jail for the crime; we call it a noble act, a profound gesture made on behalf of all of us and of the future." Tim DeChristopher, do you have any regrets?

TIM DeCHRISTOPHER: No, I have no regrets at all, I mean, especially seeing the show of support outside of the courthouse this week. There were people out there all day long, all week, and they were singing. You know, they were showing their joy and resolve in the face of intimidation. And I think that’s the really important thing that came out of this, is that people showed that regardless of what happens to me, they’re not going to be intimidated into being obedient to an unjust status quo.

AMY GOODMAN: Tim DeChristopher, we thank you very much for being with us. When is the sentencing?

TIM DeCHRISTOPHER: The sentencing is June 23rd.

AMY GOODMAN: Thanks for joining us. Tim DeChristopher, activist, founder of the environmental group Peaceful Uprising, he was convicted yesterday on two felony counts for disrupting an auction of public land in December 2008. He faces up to 10 years in prison.

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