President Trump on Tuesday pardoned two ranchers convicted of maliciously damaging federal property and whose arrests inspired an armed militia to occupy a federal facility for 40 days.
Convicted arsonists Dwight Hammond and his son Steven received full pardons from Trump. They were sentenced in 2012 for setting a fire on their cattle ranch that spread to federal land maintained by the Bureau of Land Management. The Hammonds were sentenced to serve five-year stints in prison in 2015 after the Obama administration appealed shorter sentences the father and son had previously received.
The Hammonds’ original indictment included threats against federal employees, with charges that they told a BLM worker they would blame the fire on him.
“If I go down, I’m taking you with me,” Steven Hammond allegedly said.
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The official charge on that count was tampering with a witness. After a plea deal, however, the Hammonds were convicted only on charges of “maliciously damaging real property of the United States by use of fire” for their roles in fires occurring in 2001 and 2006.
The five-year sentences the Obama administration successfully won for the Hammonds inspired a protest organized by the Bundys, another ranching family. In 2016, Ammon Bundy, Ryan Bundy and an armed militia organized a hostile takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, an area operated by the Fish and Wildlife Refuge in the same Oregon county where the Hammonds were arrested. FWS spent $6.3 million in response to the armed takeover and all of the Malheur employees were forced for months to either work remotely or take administrative leave. The extra costs also included staff time and travel to support law enforcement, as well as repair and rehabilitation to the facilities and equipment the militia members damaged during their occupation.
Other nearby federal agencies also racked up significant bills as a result of the occupation. The Forest Service shuttered its Emigrant Creek Ranger District office in Burns, Ore., during the siege and for seven weeks following it, due to safety concerns. The office spends $35,000 per week on employees’ salaries, many of whom were on paid administrative leave while the office was closed. A Bureau of Land Management office near the standoff closed through early February, paying employees $585,000 to not work during that span.
Federal employees in the area were harassed during the occupation and experienced confrontations while “grocery shopping, running errands with their families and trying to lead their day-to day lives,” the county sheriff in Oregon said at the time.
Seven of the militia members were acquitted of all charges related to the incident. Twelve individuals pleaded guilty, while four were found guilty in federal court. The Hammonds have said they rejected the Bundys’ offer for assistance.
In a statement, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said the Obama Justice Department was “overzealous” in pursuing the extended sentence, calling the result “unjust.” She argued the evidence presented in the Hammonds’ case was “conflicted.”
“The Hammonds are devoted family men, respected contributors to their local community, and have widespread support from their neighbors, local law enforcement, and farmers and ranchers across the West,” Sanders said. “Justice is overdue for Dwight and Steven Hammond, both of whom are entirely deserving of these Grants of Executive Clemency.”
Dwight Hammond had served about three years of his five-year sentence at the time of his pardon, while his son had served about four.