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Activist sentenced to two years for oil lease fraud

By James Nelson

SALT LAKE CITY (Reuters) - An environmental activist was sentenced to two years in prison on Tuesday in a federal court in Salt Lake City for defrauding the U.S. government by posing as a bidder for oil and gas drilling rights on Utah public lands.

Tim DeChristopher, 29, had submitted the phony bids to derail an auction of energy rights.

"Mr. DeChristopher had many other lawful ways to express his disapproval with the oil and gas leasing process," said U.S. District Court Judge Dee Benson at the hearing.

A federal court jury in March found DeChristopher guilty of fraud and violation of the U.S. Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act, following a four-day trial.

DeChristopher, who had faced a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, also was ordered to pay a $10,000 fine.

The green activist admitted posing as a bidder in December 2008 at a U.S. Bureau of Land Management lease auction, where he ended up offering the winning bids for 22,500 acres of Interior Department mineral rights valued at $1.7 million.

It was soon discovered he had neither the money nor the intention to consummate the purchase, effectively scuttling about a fourth of the lease sales up for bid that day.

On Tuesday, DeChristopher gave a wide-ranging speech about climate change and government at his sentencing hearing.

"My intent then and now is to expose, embarrass and hold accountable the oil industry," he said.

DeChristopher's action at the auction was praised by climate activists, but Benson said there are better ways to address environmental concerns.

"Civil disobedience can't be the order of the day," the judge said, adding that it would lead to "chaos."

Following DeChristopher's sentencing, several of his supporters in the packed courtroom shouted "this court is broke" and started singing protest songs. They were led out of the courtroom by security staff.

(Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis: Editing by Peter Bohan)

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