SALT LAKE CITY - Jury selection began on Monday in the trial of an environmental activist charged with submitting fraudulent bids for oil and gas drilling rights on federal land near two national parks in Utah.
Tim DeChristopher has admitted he falsely posed as a legitimate energy developer when he took part in a public auction conducted in December 2008 by the federal Bureau of Land Management, an Interior Department agency.
The auction ended with DeChristopher offering winning bids on 14 parcels of land he said were valued at $1.7 million, most of it near Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park, though he later acknowledged having neither the money nor the intention to make good on his purchase.
DeChristopher said his bogus bid was intended to protest what he and other environmentalists see as a virtual government giveaway of valuable mineral rights under a poorly regulated program that leads to degradation of public lands.
"He's very convinced that his cause is just and that he's helping to save the planet," said attorney Pat Shea, who represents DeChristopher.
Federal prosecutors, however, are treating DeChristopher's act as criminal fraud. In charging documents, the government states he interfered with a fair public bidding process in violation of the Federal Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act.
He also is charged with committing fraud when he completed and signed a "bidder registration form" indicating he was going to obtain an oil and gas lease on 22,500 acres of land up for auction.
If convicted on both felony counts, DeChristopher faces up to 10 years in prison and a $750,000 fine.
He said prosecutors approached him about a possible plea deal, but he chose to stand trial on principle.
"Part of the point of an act of civil disobedience is to take one's case before a jury of our peers, so they can decide whether or not my actions were justified," he said.
About 200 protesters gathered across the street from the federal courthouse in Salt Lake City in a show of solidarity.
Shea hopes to get the jury to focus on his client's "nonviolent and constructive protest" once the trial gets under way. The case is expected to last about four days, with opening arguments likely to begin on Tuesday.
Environmental activists rallying in support of DeChristopher have adopted his No. 70 bid paddle as a symbol for his cause. On several social media websites, the former University of Utah student was being hailed as a hero.
"We are all bidder 70. We can all take that opportunity to do noble civil acts of disobedience," said Jennifer Hamilton, spokeswoman for the support group Peaceful Uprising.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Peter Bohan)