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DeChristopher Soap Opera Revs up Again

The Bureau of Land Management prepares to jail college protester while shooting themselves in the foot.

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Well, it looks as if the feds are going to charge 27-year-old college student oil lease protester Tim DeChristopher with two felonies, for disrupting a controversial oil lease auction in Salt Lake City last December.

As a recap, on Election Day 2008, the BLM made a surprise announcement to lease a final 360,000 acres of southern and eastern Utah for oil and gas exploration before the Bush Administration left office. After significant public outcry, the agency reduced their offering to 149,000 acres, but environmental organizations felt that an additional 103,000 acres in 77 parcels were inadequately reviewed, and too close to National Parks and archeological sites.

In early December, young protester Tim DeChristopher registered as a buyer, then sat with his bidding paddle and won 13 of those controversial drilling parcels near Arches and Canyonlands, totalling 22,000 acres, without having the $1.8 million to purchase them. DeChristopher was lauded by environmentalists and demonized by the oil industry and wise use interests.

In the end, incoming Interior Secretary Ken Salazar himself reviewed and voided the 77 disputed leases, rendering the actual 13 DeChristopher bids moot and harshly criticizing the BLM’s rushed and illegal process. On April 1st, however, the U.S. Attorneys office for Utah announced they were charging DeChristopher with organizing and participating in a scheme to (cue angelic chorus) “defeat” federal law. Now he faces a possible 10 years in prison and $750,000 in fines.

So it’s show trial time here in Utah! Bring on the clowns! DeChristopher is being represented by a legal team including attorney Ron Yengich, a firebrand trial lawyer from Salt Lake City, and Pat Shea, another Salt Lake lawyer, former Rhodes scholar, democratic gubernatorial candidate, and national BLM Director under President Clinton. Secretary Salazar refused to intervene in the case and issued a strong statement saying “In order to have a fair and orderly process for these sales, it is essential that all participants follow the prescribed rules.”

In principle that sounds just fine, but to anyone who’s followed our Interior Department for the last several decades, Salazar’s statement is coffee-snortingly absurd. With all due respect to the many fine and often frustrated Interior and BLM employees, “fair and orderly” are hardly descriptive of the corruption and cronyism that has defined BLM and Interior management in recent years, particularly in regards to oil leasing.

Irrespective of how one feels about DeChristopher’s actions and accountability, the prosecution is a stupid PR move, simply because recent Interior Department scandals make DeChristopher’s actions look like sandbox play, and they seem unwilling to prosecute those far more egregious crimes. Let us consider four recent examples of Interior’s own attempts to defeat federal law:

[] Former Deputy Interior Secretary J. Steven Griles, the coal industry lobbyist who basically ran the BLM from 2000 to 2004. Under the first Bush Administration, lobbyist Griles became DepSec under a special Senate agreement that let him continue receiving $1 million a year from his lobbying firm, as long as he did not work on behalf of clients or former clients. Those stipulations were more than ignored. Griles advocated actively on behalf of the National Mining Association for looser mountaintop-removal mining standards. He met with Edison Electric Institute lobbyists to loosen air pollution requirements on power plants. He met with oil industry clients of his former firm. He was Jack Abramoff’s primary connection for lobbying the Interior Department. He was Dick Cheney’s Interior representative on the Oil Industry Task Force.

Griles resigned in 2004 after damning report by the Interior’s own Inspector General, who declined to file charges. Another former Interior Department official, Roger Stilwell, who provided Abramoff with priviledged department information in return for tickets and gifts, was sentenced to two years probation and a $1,000 fine. In 2007, Griles was convicted in a separate case for lying to John McCain’s Senate panel investigating the Abramoff scandal. For that offense he was sentenced to $30,000 and 10 months in jail. That is 1/12th the sentence and 1/25th the fine being potentially thrown at DeChristopher.

[] Rejane “Johnnie” Burton, Acting Assistant Interior Secretary, Land and Minerals Management, and director of DOI’s Minerals Management Service from 2002 to 2007. The MMS has been noted for chronic under-collection of oil extraction royalties. Ms. Burton resigned in early 2007 after yet another damning DOI Inspector General’s report. A former oil exploration V.P., she had specifically reduced royalty audits and let energy companies self-report their production. She also failed to review leases for errors. In one case involving 1,100 incorrectly written oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico, Burton specifically failed to link oil and gas price changes to lease rates, and then never renegotiated those rates once the problem was uncovered.

Up front lease losses were $1 billion, with another $6.4 to $9.8 billion that may go uncollected over the life of the contracts. The first auditor who reported this problem had his job eliminated. Burton resigned as other scandals in her department were being exposed, thus dodging agency censure. The Justice Department under Alberto Gonzales declined to charge her. Burton has never been prosecuted.

[] Julie McDonald, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks from 2004 to 2007. Ms. McDonald, a civil engineer from the Bureau of Reclamation with no natural sciences training, directly oversaw the National Parks Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She resigned after an Interior Department’s Inspector General report criticized her for providing Interior documents to lobbyists and routinely altering scientific reports on endangered species to benefit industrial interests. Her May 2007 resignation came one week before a House congressional committee was to hold hearings. The IG report concluded that she had directly interfered with 13 out of 20 scientifically supported endangered species listings, including lynx, and sage grouse. The IG’s report noted how “one person’s contempt for the public trust can infect an entire agency.” No charges were filed.

[] The Denver Minerals Management Service scandal, which broke on September 11th, 2008, mere months before DeChristopher waved his evil paddle. The MMS under Burton was directly responsible for a “Royalty in Kind” program where oil companies paid their lease royalties in oil rather than funds. The Government Accounting Office called it an “honors system” of self-reporting. The Department’s own Inspector General called it “a culture of ethical failure.” Personnel at the main Denver office were bribed with cash, drugs, sex, ski and golf trips, concerts, football games and consulting contracts by Chevron executives and others, in return for favorable leasing terms and non-investigation of fraudulent reports. Companies were frequently allowed to revise their leasing bids downward, even after they won contracts. The IG report documented 118 such cases costing taxpayers $4.4 million. Nineteen individuals, a third of office personnel, were directly involved.

One underling, Jim Mayberry, was aggressively prosecuted for setting up a contract, then leaving the agency, and forming a company to receive that same contract. Most MMS personnel were simply moved to other programs. The two highest ranking officials involved, Lucy Denett, and Gregory Smith, who administered Royalties in Kind from Washington and Denver respectively, both retired during the investigation, which saved them from administrative punishment. Smith, in particular, was singled out by the investigation for bribery, sexual harrassment and drug trading. The Justice Department declined to prosecute. Neither Denett nor Smith have ever been charged.

And thus we come to Tim DeChristopher.

In this era of populism, when half of America demands pitchforks and the other half sovereignty, when it’s all about the little guy versus the big, the BLM and U.S. Attorneys office for Utah have chosen to prosecute DeChristopher in a David versus Goliath case, all for leases that were voided as illegal anyway, and supposedly they’re doing it in the interests of bid fairness. Yeah right.

Whatever, it’s still a bonehead move. In the process they will deservedly lionize a totally non-violent 27-year-old protester, positively inviting contrasts to the agency’s own behavior. Even Shea, the former BLM Director, noted to the Salt Lake Tribune that plenty of oil interests didn’t pay, or were late paying, on leases they’d won during his tenure, but he was never aware of a single one being prosecuted.

I think the real message is clear: Silly little citizens better not get between big oil and the public resource, not for a second, not even peacefully or symbolically, not even if there’s no net production loss and you don’t add a single penny to the gas cost of poor, beleaguered motorists (sniff). If you do, you’ll be crucified for profaning the sacred rituals that have been held inviolate since time began – or so we hear.

The whole thing reminds me eerily of that lone Chinese protester, grocery bag in hand, standing in front of the tanks heading for Tiananmen Square. Numerous commenters are already howling for DeChristopher’s blood, tossing around statements about criminality and the proper legal avenues for public protest. Meanwhile they are studiously ignoring the rat herd strolling blithely down Interior Department’s gangplanks and away from the docks.

Apparently the Roman historian Tacitus had it right when he said “Crime once exposed has no refuge but in audacity.” If the feds were smart they’d drop this pronto.

But that’s just my opinion. I expect there’ll be lots of disagreement and shouting on both sides of the great green divide, the inevitable background noise of sausage-making democracy. Grind away in the comments section below. –Steve Howe

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