The Bureau of Land Management has not asked the Justice Department to prosecute Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy or anyone else involved in an armed standoff last year with BLM officials who were attempting to round up cattle that were illegally grazing on federal lands, according to documents a government watchdog group sued to obtain.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility today released 44 pages of highly redacted documents that show there were no criminal referrals to DOJ, and apparently no instructions to BLM staff in Nevada on how to proceed with handling the situation with Bundy, whose cattle continue to graze illegally on sensitive federal lands more than a year after the April 2014 armed standoff.
The Washington, D.C.-based group also released a letter to PEER from Theresa Coleman, chief of BLM’s Division of Information Resources Management Governance, stating that the agency conducted a thorough review and that the 44 pages of documents are responsive to the group’s records request.
The documents were released after a lawsuit PEER filed against BLM in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in June 2014 that said BLM failed to respond to the group’s Freedom of Information Act request (Greenwire, June 12, 2014).
PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch said today in an interview that PEER received the documents from BLM last week, a day after the group filed a motion for summary judgment in its lawsuit against BLM asking U.S. District Judge Richard Leon to order the agency to turn over documents to the group regarding the highly scrutinized incident, in which BLM halted the roundup of Bundy’s cattle amid threats of violence by armed protesters, many of whom came from out of state. After rounding up a few hundred cows, BLM watched as protesters released them back onto the range about 90 miles northeast of Las Vegas.
Ruch said PEER was surprised that there were so few documents related to the request. He said he’s not sure the records it received resolve the lawsuit and said PEER may ask for a sworn affidavit from BLM confirming that after a thorough records search, the 44 pages of documents are responsive to the group’s request.
"We are somewhat incredulous that there is so little," Ruch said. "But we just thought we would share the paltry fruits that we reaped."
PEER initially filed the FOIA requests in an effort to find out why BLM called off the high-profile, weeklong roundup of Bundy’s cattle.
The only response to that question in the 44 pages of documents is a press statement from BLM Director Neil Kornze, who said at the time the roundup was being called off "because of our serious concern about the safety of employees and members of the public."
PEER also wanted to know what BLM did afterward to ensure its employees stayed safe amid an anti-government backlash sparked by the Bundy standoff.
The records, according to PEER, contain communications regarding the need to take "extra safety measures." The group also referenced an email from an unidentified BLM employee advising, "At this time I recommend keeping a low profile, and not to wear anything that says you work for BLM. … If possible try to double up when going to the field."
The group was also seeking documents on whether the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to criminally prosecute Bundy, which, according to PEER, would make cattle impoundment BLM’s only option to bring Bundy to justice.
While the documents submitted to PEER do not answer that question, or indicate that BLM made any criminal referrals to DOJ after the incident, Celia Boddington, a BLM spokeswoman, said in an emailed statement that the agency "remains resolute in addressing issues involved in efforts to gather Mr. Bundy’s cattle last year and we are pursuing the matter through the legal system. Our primary goal remains, as it was a year ago, to resolve this matter safely and according to the rule of the law."
Boddington also submitted a statement from Jessica Kershaw, an Interior Department spokeswoman, concerning employee safety.
"Employee safety is always the Department’s number one priority," according to Kershaw. "For the safety of our employees and their operations, management routinely reminds staff to remain situationally aware and to take prudent security precautions at all times."
Boddington also insisted that BLM submitted the records to PEER last month. The letter from Coleman acknowledging submittal of the records to the group is dated March 27.
Regardless, the anniversary this month of the standoff with Bundy and the armed militia sparked renewed criticism from environmentalists, Democrats and former Interior Department officials, who warned that the government’s inaction is emboldening Bundy and his states’-rights-supporting peers to continue challenging BLM’s jurisdiction in the West (Greenwire, April 3).
BLM a year ago estimated there were 908 illegal cattle spread across 1,200 square miles, including in BLM’s Gold Butte area and the National Park Service’s adjacent Lake Mead National Recreation Area.
Ruch said he was stunned that nowhere in the 44 pages of documents is there any evidence that BLM has "reflected" on the standoff and considered how to avoid a similar situation in the future.
"In the aftermath of this incident, BLM apparently did not analyze either its effects or what to do if it happened again," he said.
He also said he does not understand why it took a lawsuit to compel BLM to release the documents.
"When the history of this episode is written, BLM seems determined to contribute as little as possible," he said. "So what lessons were learned from this fiasco? Darned if I know."