A New Trial Is Under Way for Occupiers of Federal Facility in Oregon

Rebecca Boone / AP

A new trial is under way for occupiers of a federal facility in Oregon, with the government adding new charges after the first group involved in the occupation was fully exonerated last fall.

The Justice Department is bringing the charges, both felony and misdemeanor, against four defendants -- Jason Patrick, Duane Ehmer, Darryl Thorn and Jake Ryan. The more minor charges added for the new trial currently under way include trespassing, tampering with vehicles and equipment and destruction and removal of property. Ryan and Ammon Bundy, and five other men, did not face misdemeanor charges, and were acquitted on the charge of conspiracy to impede federal workers from doing their jobs that the second crop of occupiers will also face.

Kevin Sonoff, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney in Oregon, said his office remains as committed as ever to bringing a conviction to those who camped out for weeks at the headquarters building of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge despite earlier setbacks.

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“We continue to believe the occupation of the refuge was illegal so we are pursuing the charges against this group with the same vigor and motivation that we approached the first group,” Sonoff said. “We will do our best to make sure justice is served.”

Jeff Ruch, executive director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, speculated the new misdemeanor charges were configured “to avoid another acquittal." The new charges seem “easier to prove,” he said.

On Wednesday, the jury was seated for the case. Opening statements will begin next week and take a few days. The whole trial is expected to take about a month, which would make it shorter than first trial. Several individuals who have already pleaded guilty in connection with the occupation will likely face sentencing after the conclusion of the current case.

Jason Holm, an FWS spokesman in the Pacific region, said his agency is paying attention to the trial.

“[We are] appreciative of the tireless efforts of the U.S. Attorney’s office,” Holm said. “We’re focusing on things we can control, primarily enhancing the collaborative relationships cited throughout the first trial.”

After the Bundys and the other occupiers were acquitted in October, then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe and Bureau of Land Management Director Neil Kornze sent memos to their workforces warning them of potential fallout from the court’s decision and expressing frustration with the result.

“While we must respect the jury’s decision because we believe in the rule of law and our system of justice, I am profoundly disappointed in this outcome and am concerned about its potential implications for our employees and for the effective management of public lands,” Jewell said in one of the memos.

FWS’ Ashe said “words cannot express my deep disappointment” in the jury’s verdict, adding the remaining defendants still awaiting trial should be “held accountable for their actions.” Ashe said he sent a “victim statement” to the judge in the recently decided case, noting the facility can be restored but the occupiers’ impact will be long lasting.

“The lives and careers of many employees and family members will never be quite the same,” Ashe wrote. He said the work that went undone would impede “years of dedicated effort,” and added that some employees declined to come back to work after the episode.

PEER recently surveyed 104 federal refuge managers in western states and found more than 80 percent said the initial Malheur acquittal made their jobs more dangerous. One in five had seen family members or staff threatened or harassed. More than 60 percent said visitors are less safe at their refuge than they were five years ago.

“The legacy of the Malheur occupation,” Ruch said, “seems to be that despite greater spending on security there is heightened insecurity for both visitors and refuge staff.”

The trial for Cliven Bundy, the patriarch of the family involved in the Malheur occupation, also started this month for his 2014 armed standoff in Nevada with the Bureau of Land Management. The standoff was sparked by Bundy’s refusal to pay grazing fees and BLM’s subsequent round off of the rancher’s cattle. That trial is getting even more attention from Ruch’s members. “For BLM,” he said, “This is a turning point for the agency.” If Bundy is convicted, his group is still wary of a potential pardon from President Trump. He said the president, who Ruch said has not come down definitively on the federal land ownership issue, should approach the issue as a hotelier. “If Bundy had come and occupied a Trump hotel,” Ruch said, “certainly he would want them punished.”

This story was updated with comments from PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch.

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