Editorial: The Bundys and the Feds

The Bundy family are anti-government extremists. The ranchers have been behind two armed standoffs with the federal government—a showdown in Nevada over cattle grazing rights in 2014 and the 2016 occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge building just outside of Burns, Oregon, to protest excessive jail sentences for another local ranching family.

In both of these confrontations, the Bundys broke laws and encouraged behavior that could have led to serious violence. But on January 8, a federal judge dismissed the charges against Cliven Bundy, the family patriarch, relating to the Nevada standoff. This decision comes after the 2016 acquittal of sons Ammon and Ryan Bundy, along with five other men, on federal conspiracy and weapons charges relating to the occupation of a federal building in Oregon. The lesson of these trials is clear: The abuse of power by federal law enforcement is a far greater threat than rogue ranchers.

Eighty-five percent of the land in Nevada is controlled by the federal government, and over half of the land in Oregon. It’s nearly impossible for anyone who owns a sizable ranch or agricultural concern in these states to avoid run-ins with the bureaucrats managing government land, who zealously enforce often arbitrary land-use regulations.

The impetus for the Oregon occupation was a clear injustice. In 2015, a District Court judge gave father and son ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond a five-year sentence for burning 129 acres of federally owned scrub brush adjacent to their land. That may sound like a lot of acreage, but controlled burns of that size are a common land-management tool. The trial judge originally sentenced the Hammonds to three months and one year, respectively, and made a point of saying in his decision that the federal mandatory-minimum sentence of five years was constitutionally “cruel and unusual.”

The mandatory minimum for arson on federal property was set by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, passed in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing. The Obama Justice Department, which was prosecuting the Hammonds, wanted the full five-year sentence, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals court overturned the trial judge’s decision. The Hammonds deserved to be treated as ranchers with a checkered reputation, not terrorists, and it was this unreasonable action by the feds that ultimately prompted Bundys’ action in Oregon.

Though the illegal occupation did damage the contents of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters and the surrounding site, the building was unharmed and the protest was ultimately peaceful. The one tragic act of violence related to the Malheur occupation was carried out by the FBI. One of the leaders of the protest, Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, was killed at a roadblock manned by state troopers and the FBI. Finicum was supposedly reaching for a gun when he was shot. But a member of the FBI’s hostage rescue team was later indicted for lying about firing two shots at Finicum, and there’s reasonable speculation about whether these early shots were warranted and may have led to Finicum’s death. The Deschutes County Sheriff, who led the investigation into the deceit, said he was “disappointed and angry,” in part because he shared his findings with the FBI, which waited a year to put the agent on leave and question his colleagues.

The government’s conduct in the trial relating to the Bundys’ Nevada standoff—which centered on Cliven Bundy’s refusal to pay decades’ worth of fees he owed in exchange for letting his cattle graze on federal land—was similarly alarming. In the indictment, the government charged the Bundys with “deliberately lying” about federal law enforcement using extreme tactics and with using “deceit and deception to recruit gunmen.”

What the Bundys had said was that law enforcement surrounded their ranch with snipers and used excessive force in arresting Cliven’s other son, Dave. Both allegations turn out to be true. Dan Love, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) special agent in charge of the Bundy standoff, testified that there were snipers at the ranch. And a BLM whistleblower report later revealed that officers bragged about having used excessive force in the Dave Bundy arrest.

Federal prosecutors also withheld multiple pieces of exculpatory evidence from the Bundy defense, including video surveillance of the Bundy ranch and multiple FBI threat assessments that concluded the Bundys were unlikely to resort to violence. When the Bundy lawyers asked for an internal affairs report on the standoff, the federal prosecutors contemptuously told them it was a “bright shiny object” that “did not exist.” Not only did the report exist—it described behavior by the Dan Love that was so egregious he no longer works at the agency.

The Bundys are guilty of some crimes, and they subscribe to a host of bizarre conspiracy theories. But that does not give the government the right to violate due process. Thankfully, federal judges deemed their crimes trivial compared to the law enforcement’s response. The government really was out to get them.

This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard

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