Major, Earth-shaking Developments in the Upcoming Bunkerville Trial(s)?

Agent in charge at Bunkerville, Nev., standoff is implicated in Burning Man investigation

According to a hot-off-the-press story in The Arizona Republic, An investigation accusing a federal agent of misconduct and ethics violations could derail one of the most high-profile land-use trials in modern Western history.

Jury selection is scheduled to start in a Las Vegas federal courtroom Monday for a series of trials in which 17 cattle ranchers and self-styled militia members face charges for their roles in the 2014 Bundy Ranch standoff against Bureau of Land Management officials.

But a Jan. 30 report by the Department of Interior’s Office of the Inspector General appears to raise serious questions about the BLM special agent in charge of operations during the standoff, who is expected to be a key witness for the government in the case.

The report, which does not identify the agent by name, cites ethical violations that occurred in 2015 at the annual Burning Man event in Northern Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.

Federal investigators said the agent wrongly used his influence to obtain benefits for himself and his family members at Burning Man, abused federal law-enforcement resources and intimidated other BLM staff to keep quiet about his conduct. They also accused the agent of manipulating BLM hiring practices to help a friend get hired.

Lawyers representing Bundy Ranch defendants say the report offers enough details to positively identify the agent as Dan Love, the BLM special agent in charge of Utah and Nevada between 2012 and 2015.

Already, they are filing motions to confirm it. A defense lawyer said Thursday they are asking a federal judge to force the government to reveal the name of the agent in the inspector general’s report. If it is Love, they will ask for charges to be dismissed against the Bundy Ranch defendants before the trials begin.

Whipple said the report paints a picture of an agent with a personal agenda and no regard for the rule of law. He said his client long has maintained that Love dangerously orchestrated events during the Bundy standoff to “enhance and enrich” his personal profile and “to make a name for himself.”

Love did not respond to repeated phone calls left at his Utah office and on his cellphone.

BLM officials in Washington, D.C., declined to comment on the inspector general’s report and would not confirm if Love is the unnamed agent. BLM spokesman Michael Richardson called the report a personnel matter. He said the unnamed agent is still employed with the BLM, but Richardson said he would not discuss the agent’s status or current assignment.

“The Bureau of Land Management takes allegations of misconduct seriously,” Richardson said in a statement. “These types of allegations do not align with our mission or the professionalism and dedication of our 10,000 employees doing essential work for America’s public lands each and every day.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Las Vegas also declined comment. Spokeswoman Trisha Young said Friday the witness list in the Bundy Ranch trials has been sealed and is not open to the public, and she declined to speak about Love’s role in the case.

Individual federal prosecutors assigned to the cases did not return calls.

A potential credibility issue, law professor says

The inspector general’s report could damage the credibility of the government’s case if Love is identified as the agent, said Sara Gordon, associate professor of law at the Boyd School of Law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

“It’s in an ethics report. I think everything is up for grabs — misuse of the vehicles, using intimidation,” Gordon said. “This stuff, it suggests that he’s willing to cheat and lie for his job.”

She said defense attorneys involved in the Bundy Ranch trials might not be able to show juries the inspector general’s report but could question Love about specific incidents raised in it.

“Anytime a witness is on the stand, you can cross-examine them and … try to impeach him,” she said. “They can ask him about things that (could) show that he’s dishonest.”

Gordon said any damage defense lawyers could inflict upon Love’s credibility would not affect the credibility of other witnesses testifying for the prosecution.

“They don’t have anything to show that he (Love) did any of this at the Bundy standoff,” she said. “I wouldn’t be happy if this was my star witness, but I don’t think this will kill the case.”

The 17 defendants are charged with conspiracy, assault on a federal officer, using a firearm in a crime of violence, obstruction of justice, interference of commerce by extortion and aiding and abetting a crime. If convicted, they could spend the rest of their lives in a federal prison.

The first trial, beginning Monday, primarily involves militia members. The second trial includes Cliven Bundy, two of his sons and two key figures in the standoff. The third includes two Bundy relatives and four others.

Report details special privileges for agent

Federal officials said the BLM agent’s name was withheld from the Burning Man report because he is not a top official within the agency.

But an analysis by the Reno Gazette-Journal and The Arizona Republic found many details in the report coincide with Love’s career, including the agent’s former title, his base of operation, his past assignments and his on-site supervisor. In addition, the report cited a June 2015 Gazette-Journal story about complaints against Love over his conduct before Burning Man began.

The Inspector General’s Office adopted language in its report identical to the Gazette-Journal article naming Love as a person behind a series of official requests that would have required Burning Man organizers to build a $1 million luxury compound for BLM officials at the event.

Burning Man takes place during Labor Day weekend when as many as 70,000 people erect a temporary city on a remote desert playa miles away from any kind of services. The event culminates with the burning of a giant wooden effigy of a man.

Among Love’s requests were flushing toilets, laundry facilities and 24-hour access to ice cream, documents show.

The inspector general’s report said the unnamed agent used his official position to buy three sold-out tickets to Burning Man; had five on-duty BLM officers escorting his father, family friend and girlfriend during the event; and also changed the hiring process so an unqualified applicant, a personal friend of his, would be hired.

During the burning of the effigy, the agent was on duty and he claimed 24 hours of official work time. He also claimed 24 hours of work time the next day, and the day after that.

Investigators said when they began looking into the complaints, the agent called other employees and encouraged them not to cooperate. He told them “I don’t recall” was a valid answer to investigators’ questions, the report said.

Investigators said the agent used intimidation to discourage his co-workers from speaking with investigators, telling one: “You know, if you don’t side with me, grenades are going to go off and you’ll get hit.”

A history of conflict, controversy

Love’s conduct was being called into question years before the Bundy Ranch standoff.

Love, formerly with the Federal Air Marshal Service, became the BLM’s Nevada and Utah special agent in charge in 2012 and has often captured headlines for actions that exacerbated an already strained relationship between the federal agency and landowners.

Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox called for Love’s ouster from the state in 2014, saying the agent had so many conflicts with local officials that it was becoming a barrier to law enforcement, according to reports published in The Salt Lake Tribune. 

Four Utah counties passed resolutions alleging the BLM posed a threat to public safety.

“This is untenable,” Cox told The Tribune. “There comes a time when personalities get in the way of productivity.”

Cox said he and other state officials were unable to negotiate with Love, and he publicly told a state commission that he didn’t want Love “instigating a war,” according to The Tribune.

Cox could not be reached for comment Friday. A spokeswoman for Utah Gov. Gary Herbert confirmed the statements made by Cox in 2014 and said they accurately reflected the state’s position.

In 2009, Love was one of the agents in charge of a massive raid of the home of Utah doctor James Redd, who had been busted for trading Native American artifacts out of the Four Corners region.

Redd, 60, committed suicide the day after his arrest, and the artifacts dealer committed suicide thereafter. Four others connected to the case, including the undercover artifacts dealer who got Redd arrested, also committed suicide.

Redd’s widow, Jeanne Redd, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against two of the BLM agents, including Love. A federal judge dismissed the suit but questioned the agents’ tactics.

At the ranch, agent accused of escalating tensions

On websites and social-media posts dedicated to the Bundy Ranch standoff, Love is accused of ratcheting up the conflict.

Recorded exchanges purportedly between Love and right-wing internet radio host Peter Santilli during the standoff show just how quickly events escalated as each man threatened the other with arrest.

Love maintained he had the federal courts on his side and wanted to end the standoff peacefully. Then he told Santilli that the protesters didn’t have enough people to hold off law enforcement, saying, “You better hope that 10,000 show up,” according to one website.

Santilli is one of the 17 facing charges.

Bundy’s fight with the federal government dates back to the early 1990s, when he refused to pay the BLM for allowing his cattle to graze on public lands near his ranch in Bunkerville, Nev., about 80 miles north of Las Vegas on Interstate 15.

For two decades, the BLM repeatedly ordered Bundy to remove his cattle from federal lands and in 2014 the agency obtained a court order to seize Bundy’s cattle as payment for more than $1 million in back fees. In April, the BLM, led by Love, implemented a roundup of 1,000 head of Bundy’s cattle ranging on public land.

Bundy fought back, issuing a social-media battle cry to help defend his land rights against federal agents. Supporters, including members of several militia groups, streamed to the ranch from several Western states, including Nevada, Arizona, Idaho and Montana. They showed up with rifles and handguns, determined to keep government agents at bay.

For six days, tension escalated as the standoff played out with demonstrations, speeches and attempted negotiations before the BLM abandoned the round-up and withdrew from the area without a single arrest. Cliven Bundy went back to grazing his cattle on the disputed public land.

The standoff was hailed as a victory by militia members. Cliven Bundy’s sons, Ammon and Ryan Bundy, cited their success at Bundy Ranch in their run-up to the siege of an Oregon wildlife refuge in 2016, also in protest of BLM policies. They said they could make the federal government stand down.

Federal authorities answered the siege at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which ended in the shooting death of Arizona rancher LaVoy Finicum and with other arrests and indictments. But the Oregon case ended in embarrassment for federal prosecutors last year when a federal jury acquitted Ryan and Ammon Bundy and five other defendants.

Cliven Bundy was not directly involved in the Oregon siege. He was arrested last year in connection with his role in the 2014 Nevada standoff, which is referred to in militia circles as the Battle of Bunkerville. His sons and 14 others also were charged. All are being held without bail at a detention facility in Nevada.

Cliven Bundy’s attorney said Thursday it “will be very interesting” to see how the case plays out with Dan Love as the government’s key witness.

“Between you and me,” Whipple said, “We’re lucky we’re at trial and not at a memorial service.”

Jenny Kane is a reporter for the Reno Gazette-Journal. Reach her at jkane2@reno.gannett.com or 775-788-6307. Robert Anglen is a reporter for The Arizona Republic. Reach him at robert.anglen@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-8694.

Reposted from The Arizona Republic/azcentral