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Testimony begins in Bunkerville standoff trial

LAS VEGAS — Defiant cattle rancher Cliven Bundy tossed court orders out the window of his truck and tried to pay grazing fees to Clark County instead of the federal government, a Justice Department lawyer testified Monday as prosecutors began to establish the chain of events that led to an armed standoff in Bunkerville in 2014.

Justice Department lawyer Terry Petrie took the witness stand Monday in the federal trial of six people accused of conspiring with Bundy to block the Bureau of Land Management from impounding the rancher’s cattle. The impoundment operation in 2014 followed a decadeslong dispute over grazing fees and permits.

Under direct examination by the government, Petrie read from court documents dating back to the early ‘90s that detail Bundy’s various attempts to flout federal court orders regarding his livestock. The testimony provided jurors a snapshot of the lengthy legal saga that resulted in the politically charged, armed confrontation when authorities tried to round up the cattle.

The last grazing fees paid by Bundy to the BLM were for the period of December 1992 to February 1993, Petrie testified. In subsequent years, the federal government and Bundy went back and forth in court, with the rancher arguing that his cattle could graze in accordance with his “vested grazing rights.”

In response to one ruling that ordered him to remove his cattle from the Bunkerville Allotment, Bundy accused the BLM of harassing him, threw a court order out the window of his truck and drove away, Petrie testified. His son then picked up the order, tore it into pieces and threw it on the ground.

Petrie testified that the rancher mailed a check for nearly $2,000 to Clark County in 1995. The amount, if paid to the proper agency, would have covered one year of grazing fees. But Bundy, who previously has said that the county sheriff has jurisdiction over the federal lands, refused to pay the federal government. Clark County returned the check to Bundy, Petrie said.

The Justice Department lawyer had not finished his testimony when court broke for lunch recess Monday. Defense attorneys had argued that some of the court documents the witness quoted should not be allowed into evidence. They assert that their clients, none of whom is a Nevada resident, joined the Bunkerville protests for ideological reasons and had no interest in the core dispute over cattle grazing.

Ethics Accusations

Earlier in the day, a defense attorney representing one of the men on trial took aim at prosecutors with pointed accusations that a federal agent central to the case is the same person recently accused of misconduct in an investigative report released by the Office of Inspector General.

Defense attorney Todd Leventhal raised concerns about the unredacted investigative report recently turned over to him by the prosecution.

“The unredacted version is quite scary, your honor,” Leventhal said. The attorney said five or six other government witnesses were mentioned in the report, which he called “pretty far-reaching.”

Specifically, the report accuses an unnamed Bureau of Land Management agent of using his position to obtain sold-out Burning Man tickets. It also includes other allegations that, if allowed into evidence, could be used to boost defense arguments that government agents acted inappropriately toward what the defense team contends were peaceful protesters.

First Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Myrhe described the report as “extrinsic and inadmissible.”

U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro said she would rule at a later time on whether defense attorneys can ask witnesses about information in the unredacted version of the report.

The targeted BLM agent was not identified by name in open court, but previous court filings indicate that defense attorneys suspect it is BLM Special Agent in Charge Dan Love. Myrhe lauded Love’s actions during the standoff in his opening statement to the jury.

Leventhal raised the issue before the government called its first witness: FBI Special Agent E.J. McEwen. McEwen, who is not mentioned in the Office of Inspector General report, testified about hours of aerial surveillance footage he captured on the day of the standoff.

Myrhe played more than 90 minutes of surveillance footage Monday morning that showed the protesters moving toward the area where BLM agents had been executing the court order to impound Bundy’s cattle.

Bundy is scheduled to stand trial later this year. The six men currently on trial are charged with threats, assault, extortion and other crimes resulting from the standoff.

Contact Jenny Wilson at jenwilson@reviewjournal.com. Follow @jennydwilson on Twitter.

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