Activist at Utah oil auction to assert new defense

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- The federal government has acknowledged it never prosecuted anyone who failed to pay a bid for drilling rights in Utah until a college student offered his bogus bids in an act of environmental defiance.

The admission is giving defense lawyers for Tim DeChristopher hope they can get the two felony charges against him dismissed based on an argument of selective prosecution.

DeChristopher has said he offered bids last December that he couldn't cover to protect public lands between Arches and Canyonlands national parks in Utah, and to draw attention to climate change.

Federal prosecutors said Tuesday they had disclosed a number of cases where drilling companies or land agents made bids at Utah auctions they didn't cover financially. The reasons weren't immediately clear.

Defense lawyers said that shows the government is unfairly singling out DeChristopher for prosecution. Government lawyers dispute that and said DeChristopher -- unlike other bidders -- showed intent to violate the law.

Still, defense lawyers are expected to use the admission to ask a federal judge to toss out two felony charges against DeChristopher, who was indicted in April for interfering with a government auction and making false representations.

It was the only time anybody was ever charged with failing to make good on bids at a lease auction of public lands in Utah, prosecutors told The Associated Press. They expect the defense to exploit this argument, but lawyers have yet to file any papers asserting it.

"There's people who didn't have the money -- but they didn't have the intent to disrupt" the auction, assistant U.S. attorney John Huber said.

The government acknowledged 25 cases where bidders failed to come up with money for bids at auctions held by the Bureau of Land Management in Utah, said Patrick Shea, one of DeChristopher's lawyers and head of the BLM during the administration of President Bill Clinton.

There was no immediate explanation for the circumstances of those 25 cases, which were documented in papers the government gave DeChristopher's defense team that are not part of the public record.

Prosecutors, however, said they were owning up to the fact and it doesn't prevent them from prosecuting DeChristopher.

The disclosure came out Tuesday in a hallway after DeChristopher, his lawyers and prosecutors left a private conference with a federal judge, who set DeChristopher's trial for March 15-17.

DeChristopher, a University of Utah economics major, grabbed a bidder's paddle last December to run up prices for others and win 13 leases of his own around Arches and Canyonlands parks.

His bidding cost angry oil men hundreds of thousands of dollars in higher bids for their parcels, and DeChristopher ended up with $1.7 million in leases for which he couldn't pay. He later offered to cover it with an Internet fundraising campaign, but the government refused to accept any of the money after the fact.

DeChristopher has said the administration of former President George W. Bush violated environmental laws in holding the auction. A federal judge later blocked many of the leases from being issued.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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