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Tina Casey headshot

Cliven Bundy's Lawyer Hits Up Koch Brothers For Cash

By Tina Casey

Over the span of many years, the Koch brothers have carefully constructed and funded a network of lobbying groups and sympathetic legislators, one major aim being to open up more federal lands for private use. The effort largely escaped the attention of national media until 2014, when Nevada rancher and melon farmer Cliven Bundy, who is associated with the Koch network, orchestrated a gang of armed thugs to confront federal officers over that very issue.

Since then, the extra-legal exploits of Cliven Bundy and his son, Ammon, began to appear in the headlines with increasing regularity, drawing more and more unwanted attention to the influence the Koch brothers have over federal land policy.

Another day, another Koch connection

In the latest development, Cliven Bundy's lawyer, Nevada-based Joel Hansen, sent out feelers to see if the Koch brothers could help pay Bundy's legal bills. (For those of you new to the Bundy topic, scroll to the bottom for a quick recap.)

The news broke earlier this week when Ryan J. Haas, news content manager for Oregon Public Broadcasting, tweeted a copy of an email sent by Hansen to Utah State Rep. Ken Ivory. Ivory's connection to the Koch-funded lobbying group ALEC is no secret, Mother Jones reports:

"He sits on the federalism committee of the American Legislative Exchange Council. His nonprofit, the American Lands Council (ALC), is largely funded by local and county governments eager to gain control of land in their communities. It has also taken funding from utility companies and Americans for Prosperity, the dark-money group founded by the Koch brothers," Mother Jones correspondent Stephanie Mencimer wrote last year.

Hansen's email is a direct plea for financial assistance from the Koch brothers. It reads, in part:
"I understand from news articles that the Koch brothers are helping to fund Cliven's efforts to return our lands to the states."

Hansen also points out that he is representing Cliff Gardner, another Nevada rancher, among others, "in their fight against the BLM [Bureau of Land Management] and the Forest Service."

From Cliff Gardner to Cliven Bundy

Cliven and Ammon Bundy have both become high-profile advocates for the oddball constitutional theories advanced by ALEC and other "land rights" groups, and you can find roots of the argument in the Cliff Gardner land rights case.

To get the full picture, check out the Washington Post's timeline of BLM conservation efforts in Nevada after 1989. The initiative resulted in a restriction of grazing rights, touching off a series of bombing episodes in the 1990s.

Things appeared to calm down somewhat by 2001, when the Associated Press ran a story about a group of more than half a dozen Nevada ranchers accused of continuing to graze their cattle illegally after the new restrictions.

BLM enforced its authority by impounding the trespass cattle, an action that drew pickets and other protests by the ranchers and their supporters. Unlike Cliven's 2014 episode, though, there was no direct threat of violence.

The Department of Justice also got involved, issuing 12 lawsuits against the group. Among the targets was Cliff Gardner. He responded with a lawsuit of his own, deploying the same "states rights" argument advanced by ALEC:

"One Elko County rancher, Cliff Gardner, has decided to take his case to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that states' rights mean the federal government has no authority over the land where his cattle graze," Washington Post reporter Jaime Fuller wrote in the paper's timeline.

The argument flopped in court, and in 2002 Gardner was sentenced to one year of probation and a $5,000 fine.

But that was not the end of Gardner's activism. The Post notes that he "reappeared" in 2013 to argue against additional conservation initiatives in a series of letters to the editor.

After Cliven's 2014 episode, Gardner publicly pledged his support, stating: "I am determined to stand by the Bundy family in any fashion it takes regardless of the threat of life or limb."

Since then, Gardner remained active on the so-called 'patriot militia' speaker circuit. According to a Feb. 3 article in CounterPunch, Gardner continues to advocate for an ALEC-style interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, under which the federal government has no authority over land outside of Washington, D.C.

Gardner was a featured speaker at the 'Storm Over Rangelands' conference held in late January in Idaho. Hosted by Utah's Freedom Conference, the event was sponsored by some familiar Koch-backed names, including the American Lands Council and the John Birch Society.

CounterPunch reporter Katie Fite attended the conference and had this to say about Gardner's legal theories:

"Gardner spun through a history of 1800s land acquisitions. He segued into various laws that he believed led to federal overreach, where liberty and freedom took a turn for the worse. He swept through American history high and low points – from the 'Founding Fathers,' through the Civil War era, laws that persecuted the LDS [Church of Latter Day Saints] people, War Power, the interstate Highway system and the Frank Church Report ...

"Gardner ... is stuck in a frontier-era mindset of disposal. He referred to a lawsuit he had brought in NV and seemed to say the Judge could never tell him which article his authority came."

This finally brings us back around to Hansen's email to Ken Ivory.

Considering Hansen's association with Gardner, and Gardner's history with the Koch-backed "land rights" network, it does not seem likely that Hansen is only aware of the Koch connection through "news articles."

Now that the email has gone public, expect Hansen to get the quick brush-off from Ivory. Virtually no mainstream legislators have gone out of their way to support Cliven or his son Ammon, the simple reason being that, due to their penchant for violence and crazy talk, both men threaten to undo all of the hard work undertaken by the Koch network.

After all, with friends like these, who needs enemies?

A quick recap of the Bundy exploits

For those of you new to the whole Bundy topic, TriplePundit is following the case from a corporate social responsibility perspective. Here is an extended excerpt from a previous TriplePundit article about Cliven and Ammon Bundy:
... Family patriarch and Nevada rancher/melon farmer Cliven Bundy has been active as the “grassroots” voice of a Koch-funded lobbying effort to transfer federal property to the states. The goal is to open up more public lands to extractive industries and other development.

That goal is consistent with the Koch family business, Koch Industries. The company is concentrated in the fossil fuel and mining sectors, and the Koch brothers have also dabbled in cattle ranching. In recent years, they made a big mark in the logging industry through the acquisition of Georgia-Pacific.

In 2014, Cliven Bundy orchestrated an armed standoff with federal agents, who arrived at Bundy’s ranch because his cattle was trespassing on sensitive public lands in the Gold Butte area. Bundy let his herd run wild for years without paying the required grazing fees. After racking up roughly $1 million in fines and fees, it was finally time to call him to account.

Despite the obvious criminal behavior involved in the standoff, Cliven remained free to roam his Nevada safe zone until earlier this year, when his son Ammon, owner of an Arizona truck fleet repair business, masterminded his own armed takeover — setting his sights on the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County, Oregon.

Ammon insisted that his mission was simply to “educate” the local community about its rights and to turn the Malheur refuge over to “ranchers, loggers and miners” — coincidentally or not, a complete overlap with the interests of Koch Industries.

The Malheur occupation ended with the apprehension of Ammon and two dozen of his supporters. Ammon and most of those arrested were determined to be flight risks and have remained behind bars in Portland, Oregon, pending trial.

Justice also finally caught up with Cliven Bundy. After Ammon issued a jailhouse plea for support, Cliven flew from Nevada to Oregon. He was promptly arrested at Portland International Airport, where federal agents could be assured that he was unarmed and harmless. He is now being held without bail pending trial in Nevada.

 Image credits: 1) Flickr/Gage Skidmore 2) via U.S. Bureau of Land Management
Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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