Reporting from Denver — In early 2009, one of the Obama administration's first moves was to rule that a last-minute George W. Bush administration sale of 77 energy leases on federal land in Utah's red rock country had been improperly administered. President Obama's Interior Department pulled the parcels off the auction block.
To some environmentalists, that validated the dramatic steps that a University of Utah economics student had taken months earlier. Tim DeChristopher had crashed the government auction of the energy leases and won bids on 22,000 acres despite having no ability to pay for them.
But the U.S. government was not amused. A federal jury in Salt Lake City convicted DeChristopher in March of two felonies: making a false statement and violating laws on oil and gas leasing. On Tuesday, he could be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison and fined $1.5 million.
DeChristopher has become a cause célèbre for many environmental activists. In an interview Monday, he said he has been prosecuted not because of what he did, but because he urged other activists to follow in his footsteps.
"I don't think this case has been about what happened at the auction," said DeChristopher, 29. "This case has been about the political views I've expressed and that I've encouraged people to commit civil disobedience."
U.S. District Judge Dee Benson ruled that DeChristopher could not testify at his trial about his motivations for bidding on 13 parcels of land that he offered to lease for nearly $1.8 million.
In court papers, the U.S. attorney's office urged that DeChristopher be sentenced to "significant" prison time.
"A significant prison term will promote respect for the law," Assistant U.S. Atty. John W. Huber wrote. "This factor is perhaps most telling as it applies to the defendant's crimes where his acts, including post-offense conduct, champion disrespect for the rule of law."
Huber noted that DeChristopher has repeatedly said he was proud of his acts and that he held a clenched fist aloft at a defiant news conference after his conviction. He said DeChristopher cost at least one other bidder $600,000 and the government $139,000.
DeChristopher's attorneys argue that the bids saved taxpayer money because the entire auction was invalidated. Ironically, another federal judge later ruled that the Obama administration acted improperly in rescinding the auction but did not reinstate the leases.
Activists and environmentalists – including celebrities like Robert Redford and Daryl Hannah – have backed DeChristopher.
"Since when did protecting the environment become a crime?" the group Public Citizen said in a statement Monday. "When large corporations escape punishment for when they destroy the environment and harm their workers, Tim DeChristopher's trial looks all the more unjust."
The energy industry had urged his prosecution, warning that future auctions were at risk if activists could bid on parcels without intending to pay.
"No one likes to see people make a mistake that creates negative consequences for themselves and others," said Marc Smith, executive director of the Western Energy Alliance. "Unfortunately, celebrity status is bestowed to crimes of conscience, perpetuating a widespread belief that fraud and other serious crimes will be overlooked if the person believed they had a 'good reason.'"
DeChristopher said he's at peace with whatever happens Tuesday. "I'm optimistic I can deal with anything that happens," he said. "People are going to take strong acts to defend a livable future, regardless of what happens to me."