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Activist who faked Utah energy lease bids sentenced to 2 years

Tim DeChristopher is also fined $10,000 for winning bids on 22,000 acres in Utah that he couldn't pay for at a federal energy auction. Protesters in Salt Lake City block traffic; 26 are arrested.

July 27, 2011|By Ashley Powers, Los Angeles Times
  • Chelsea Satre, left, and Julianne Waters sit in the middle of Main Street and block a light-rail line after Tim DeChristopher was sentenced in Salt Lake City to two years in prison on federal charges for bidding up prices at an auction of land leases that he couldn't pay for.
Chelsea Satre, left, and Julianne Waters sit in the middle of Main Street… (Jim Urquhart, Associated…)

Reporting from Las Vegas — A Utah man lionized by environmentalists for crashing a 2008 government auction of energy leases near two national parks was sentenced to two years in prison and fined $10,000 on Tuesday.

U.S. District Judge Dee Benson in Salt Lake City ordered Tim DeChristopher taken into custody immediately.

"I'm not saying there isn't a place for civil disobedience," Benson said. "But it can't be the order of the day."

In a roughly 35-minute address to the court, DeChristopher, 29, said his actions were necessary to highlight the threat that climate change poses to the planet.

"My intent both at the time of the auction and now was to expose, embarrass and hold accountable the oil and gas industry, to point that it cut into their $100-billion profits," he said.

Defense attorney Pat Shea vowed to appeal.

"There's been a serious abuse of justice," Shea said.

DeChristopher could have received up to 10 years in prison and a $1.5-million fine.

In March, a jury convicted him of two felonies: making a false statement and violating laws on oil and gas leasing. He was not allowed to testify about his motivations for bidding on the oil rights to 22,000 acres in Utah's red rock country, near Arches and Canyonlands national parks.

Before sentencing, dozens of supporters — including Peter Yarrow of the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary — gathered near the courthouse, wearing orange sashes and waving puppets representing wildlife and "Big Oil." Yarrow led about 100 protesters in a singalong.

Afterward, supporters in the courtroom broke into song and one person shouted, "This is not justice."

Then about 100 protesters, many crying and shouting, gathered outside the courthouse and blocked the doors.

Protesters used plastic ties around their wrists to form a human chain and moved into downtown streets, blocking car and light-rail traffic, Salt Lake City police spokeswoman Lara Jones said. Twenty-six people were arrested, she said.

The oil lease auction occurred in December 2008, just before President George W. Bush left office.

Environmentalists accused the Bush administration of trying to ram through the sale on the environmentally sensitive land before President Obama was sworn in.

An economics student at the time, DeChristopher said he was moved by a fellow environmentalist who was watching the sale and weeping. He hoped to delay the fate of 13 parcels, which he'd offered to lease for nearly $1.8 million before officials ejected him from the auction.

"I sat there watching one parcel after another going into the hands of oil developers, and I knew the land would be pretty much ruined," he told The Times in 2009. "I got to the point where I couldn't sit there and watch anymore."

Obama's Interior Department eventually ruled that its predecessor had incorrectly administered the lease sale and yanked the parcels off the auction block. (A federal judge later ruled that the Obama administration's actions were improper, but did not reinstate the leases.)

The energy industry pushed for a prosecution, worried that DeChristopher would inspire future auction-crashers. After his conviction, federal prosecutors asked that he be sentenced to a "significant prison term" to "promote respect for the law." They maintained that he cost oil firms hundreds of thousands of dollars in higher bids for other parcels.

In his courtroom address Tuesday, DeChristopher told the judge that prison would not silence him.

"You have authority over my life, but not my principles. Those are mine," he said. "I'll continue to confront the system that threatens our future."

ashley.powers@latimes.com

Times staff writer Nicholas Riccardi in Denver and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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