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Student is charged with obstructing Utah land auction

He says his false bids on oil and gas parcels were acts of civil disobedience against the exploitation of public sites. The two felony charges carry up to 10 years in prison and a $750,000 fine.

April 02, 2009|Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — A college student was charged with two federal felonies Wednesday for what he contends were acts of civil disobedience -- making false bids to run up auction prices on oil and gas parcels on public land near Utah's national parks.

At the Dec. 19 lease sale, Tim DeChristopher grabbed a bidder's paddle, drove up prices and won 22,000 acres of land for $1.79 million, an amount he later said he didn't have the means or intention to pay.

DeChristopher "repeatedly said he intended to disrupt the lease-bidding process," U.S. Atty. Brett Tolman said in announcing the charges. "Today's indictment is our answer to his decision."

A grand jury charged DeChristopher with one count of interfering with a federal auction and one count of making false representations at an auction, Tolman said. The penalty could range from no punishment to a combined sentence of up to 10 years in prison and a $750,000 fine.

DeChristopher, 27, a University of Utah economics student, will be issued a summons to appear in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City. No arraignment date has been set.

He isn't affiliated with any major environmental group but has said that he infiltrated the auction as a protest. He made no apologies Wednesday for obstructing the lease of land in Utah's red-rock country.

"This auction was a fraud against the American people and a threat to our future," DeChristopher said. "My motivation to act came against the exploitation of public lands, the lack of a transparent and participatory government and the imminent danger of climate change."

One of his lawyers, Patrick Shea, said prosecutors hinted weeks ago that the case could be settled with a misdemeanor plea bargain instead of a felony punishable by prison time.

"Nobody was hurt. No property was destroyed," Shea said.

The auction was already being challenged by environmental groups, who won a court stay on the sale of some parcels. Weeks later, new Interior Secretary Ken Salazar rescinded 77 of the leases, saying they were too close to national parks and never should have gone up for sale under the Bush administration.

The defense contends that DeChristopher caused no financial harm to the government or legitimate bidders, but at least one bidder disputes that.

"We are angry," said Daniel Gunnell, managing partner of Twilight Resources of Orem, Utah, who said he lost parcels when Salazar rescinded them and paid extra for other parcels when DeChristopher ran up bids.

"Tim DeChristopher is a guy who walked in the auction without a penny and cost our company $600,000," Gunnell said.

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