BLM misconduct probe may derail Bundy Ranch standoff trial
Agent in charge at Bunkerville, Nev., standoff is implicated in Burning Man investigation
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 represents ranch owner and Bundy family patriarch Cliven Bundy, 70, whose years-long feud with the federal government over cattle grazing rights on federal land culminated in the 2014 standoff.
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.
Trials could go on for months. The defendants will be prosecuted in groups before three different juries based on their alleged levels of culpability.
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.
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.
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Jenny Kane is a reporter for the Reno Gazette-Journal. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 775-788-6307.
Robert Anglen is a reporter for The Arizona Republic. Reach him at email@example.com or 602-444-8694.