Government drops fine against DeChristopher

By Michael McFall, News Editor

The federal government’s two-pronged attack against environmental activist Tim DeChristopher has backed off–for now.

In December, DeChristopher, a senior in economics, went to an auction for national park land and won 22,000 acres for $1.7 million. But later, he said he no intention to pay for them, and was bidding on the land to protect it from oil drilling.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office filed criminal charges April 1 against DeChristopher for placing false bids on the auctioned land, a violation of a federal act. The next day, the U.S. Department of the Interior filed a civil lawsuit against him for a fine of $81,000.

But on Saturday morning, Lawrence Jensen, the department’s deputy solicitor, rescinded the civil suit along with its fine. However, that might only be for the time being. The government withdrew its second lawsuit without prejudice, meaning it can bring the charges forward again at any time.

Jensen said they plan on reconsidering the civil suit after DeChristopher’s criminal case has reached a verdict.

Patrick Shea, one of DeChristopher’s attorneys, said that this is typical government strategy: Wear down the defense over time with one trial after another, instead of an onslaught of two at once.

“So they have you responding in the criminal area, then the civil arena,” Shea said. To counter it, the student’s lawyers filed papers asking the court to forbid the government from trying to ever bring up the civil suit again.

DeChristopher’s criminal trial begins July 6 at Salt Lake City’s federal courthouse. But even when that’s over, he’ll still have to deal with the American government’s civil suit.

“But they don’t know us. We don’t wear down easily,” Shea said.

Shea said he believes his client can beat the feds. In February, Obama’s newly appointed Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, decided that the Bush administration’s land auction in December was misguided. He declared the lands off the market, including DeChristopher’s, which Shea argues removes his client’s liability.

Before the civil suit is officially rescinded, the Interior Board of Land Appeals has to approve the Department of the Interior’s decision to temporarily drop the $81,000 fine. In case the civil suit returns, Shea and his team spent 50 hours drafting a proposal to cap the fine at $81,000. That proposal was shot down.

DeChristopher has said his defiance is an act of civil disobedience to bring attention to the environment. He could not be reached for comment.

[email protected]

The Associated Press contributed to this story.