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'Nuisance' Bidder in Utah Auction Faces Prison, Fines

A 27-year-old college student who bid on 13 natural gas and oil leases in December during a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) auction in Utah -- with no intention of paying for them -- faces up to 10 years in prison and a hefty fine after being indicted Wednesday on two felony counts.

The government said Tim DeChristopher, a University of Utah economics student, falsely bid on 13 lease parcels covering 22,000 acres near Utah's Arches and Canyonlands national parks (see NGI, Dec. 22, 2008). He faces jail time and $750,000 in fines for organizing and participating in a scheme to "defeat" federal law and making fraudulent statements when he registered as a bidder at BLM's lease auction in Salt Lake City, the indictment stated.

U.S. Attorney for Utah Brett Tolman said people may have "deeply held views" about government behavior, but those views have to be expressed lawfully.

"Rather than follow the rule of law, this defendant has, in his own words, repeatedly said he intended to disrupt the lease-bidding process," Tolman said. The indictment "is our response to his decision."

On the day the auction was held, DeChristopher signed a bidder-registration form warning that it was a federal crime to "knowingly and willfully make any false, fictitious or fraudulent statements." The form also cites the maximum penalties for making each false statement: up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. In addition to being charged with filing a false bidder form, DeChristopher is accused of violating the federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act of 1987, which mandates the competitive bidding process.

"DeChristopher represented himself as a bona fide bidder, when in fact he was not," said Tolman.

DeChristopher claimed to not be affiliated with a major environmental group, but that he infiltrated the auction as an act of civil disobedience to protest drilling on public lands. He has said he did not regret bidding on the drilling parcels and hoped to gain sympathy from the Obama administration.

That appears unlikely. BLM "will not tolerate future conduct which undermines the integrity of the bid process," said Interior Department Secretary Ken Salazar, responding to news of charges.

"The indictment announced...contains serious allegations of fraud by a bidder in a BLM oil and gas lease sale," Salazar said. "In order to have a fair and orderly process for these sales, it is essential that all participants follow the prescribed rules."

DeChristopher said, "My hopes were misplaced" regarding any sympathy from the Obama administration. "Now my hopes rest on a jury of my peers."

DeChristopher remained free on bond last week. He is expected to be issued a summons to appear in federal court in Salt Lake City. His lawyers include Pat Shea, who served as a BLM administrator during the Clinton administration.

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