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Man accused of fake bids for oil leases to testify

Man accused of fake bids for oil leases to testify

March 2nd, 2011 by CHI-CHI ZHANG, Associated Press in News

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - A 29-year-old man accused of hijacking bids at a federal auction in order to protect two national parks from oil-and-gas drillers was expected to testify Wednesday in his own defense.

Tim DeChristopher is accused of placing fake bids on more than a dozen leases near Utah's Arches and Canyonlands national parks to try to run up prices. He has pleaded not guilty, but doesn't dispute the facts of the case and says he expects to be convicted.

The former wilderness guide faces up to 10 years in prison and $750,000 in fines if convicted on charges of interfering with and making false representations at a government auction.

Federal prosecutors called him a saboteur during opening statements Tuesday, saying that DeChristopher knowingly placed the bids at the 2008 auction without any intention of paying.

The trial isn't about "Big Oil" or federal government, Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott Romney said.

But fellow environmentalists who range from celebrities to activists have made DeChristopher a folk hero of their movement, insisting that DeChristopher was standing up to a federal agency that violated environmental laws by holding the auction.

On Tuesday, a special agent at the Bureau of Land Management, which ran the auction, recounted how DeChristopher stood out among the bidders vying for the leases.

Daniel Love said he quickly noticed DeChristopher, mainly for how his shabby attire differed from the others.

During the auction, DeChristopher kept looking at the door at the back of the room. DeChristopher said he had planned to create a disruption, but backed off because there were too many law enforcement agents, according to Love.

DeChristopher's bids began with smaller amounts, one at $500, then a later one for $25,000. By the end, he owed $1.7 million on leases totaling 22,500 acres around the two parks.

"At this point, he was in it to win it. There was no regard for ceiling price," Love said.

DeChristopher believed the bidding tactic worked because he saw other bidders leaving the auction, Love said. DeChristopher's bidding inflated the prices by a total of $300,000 on about 20 of 131 parcels being auctioned that day, Love added.

DeChristopher later said he knew what he did was wrong and that he was prepared to accept the punishment, Love said.

A University of Utah economics student at the time, DeChristopher had offered to cover the bill with an Internet fundraising campaign. The government refused to accept any of the money after the fact.

A federal judge later blocked many of the leases from being issued.

Federal prosecutors say DeChristopher is the only person ever charged with failing to make good on bids at a lease auction of public lands in Utah. They have offered plea deals over the past two years, but he opted to go to trial.

His defense attorneys declined to make opening statements Tuesday, and a judge said the jury could get the case as early as Wednesday.

The case has become a symbol of solidarity for environmentalists, including actress Daryl Hannah, who rallied in his support Monday, and others who marched outside court Tuesday.

"With this case, the government is trying to teach a lesson and deter activists," said Flora Bernard, spokeswoman for the Salt Lake City-based Peaceful Uprisings, an environmental group that DeChristopher co-founded.

"By coming out here, we are showing that we are not intimidated," she said.