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Tina Casey headshot

Latest Bundy Update: Strange Legal Theories and Unhelpful Friends

By Tina Casey

TriplePundit is following the exploits of Cliven and Ammon Bundy from a corporate social responsibility angle, because the father and son are businessmen who purport to act on behalf of broader community concerns. However, in separate actions spread out over two years, both men dug themselves into a deep hole by enlisting armed gangs to carry out their agenda. And the latest developments are unlikely to help their case.

Keeping up with the Bundys

For those of you new to the topic, 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.

Strange legal theories

Among the latest developments, Cliven and Ammon Bundy are both attempting to deploy a long-discredited legal theory in their defense.

Ammon's legal team attempted to get his charges dismissed on the grounds that the federal government has no jurisdiction over the Malheur refuge, based on the theory that the federal government has no constitutional authority to own or manage property outside of Washington, D.C.

That theory has been tested numerous times over the past 200 years without success.

Aside from a total lack of support from acknowledged legal and constitutional experts, the theory has little support among state policymakers (with a few notable exceptions).

That's partly because state budgets are not nearly up to the task of managing the millions of acres of property that would suddenly come under their jurisdiction, including Department of Defense facilities. State agencies would also be exposed to new legal risks as they attempt to juggle the interests of Koch-related stakeholders with the growing economic firepower of the outdoor recreation and conservation sectors.

As cited last week in the Oregonian newspaper, Ammon's legal team is still pushing the theory as they seek dismissal of the charges:

It is from Ammon's understanding of federalism and his genuine belief in originalism, coupled with his own personal life experiences, that he, like a growing body of significant thinkers across the United States, has challenged the federal government's overreach, speaking out against its attendant injustices, and rallying attention to the core question of federal land ownership and related abuses ...

Cliven Bundy also has a track record of articulating the same offbeat theory of federal authority over public land, dating back to the Nevada standoff.

Consistent with that stance, during an initial court appearance in March Cliven refused to acknowledge any federal authority over his case.

Bundy's most recent legal maneuver was to file a lawsuit last week, charging that President Barack Obama and U.S. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) are part of a conspiracy to take over his ranch. As described by NBC reporter Erik Ortiz:

Bundy alleges Reid used "the equivalent of federal storm-troopers" against Bundy's "peaceful cowboys," and that Reid wanted Bundy gone so that he could seize his land and then sell it to the Chinese.

Unhelpful friends

All of this sounds highly dubious, and neither Cliven nor Ammon Bundy is being well served by those who have rallied to their cause.

If the phrase "peaceful cowboys" rings a bell, for example, you are probably thinking of Nevada State Rep. Michele Fiore. One of the very few elected officials to publicly support the Bundys, Fiore has adopted and amplified the "cowboy camper" meme put forth by Ammon Bundy's legal team, in an attempt to position the Malheur episode as an act of legitimate civil disobedience.

Fiore is also a high-profile supporter of gun rights, and lately she's been ratcheting up that position to the point of recklessness. Last week she made national news by suggesting that she would shoot first and ask questions later if a law enforcement officer ordered her to stand down at gunpoint. As cited by the New York Daily News, she backtracked by explaining she would only shoot at a "rogue agent" of the Bureau of Land Management:

"They are wannabe cops, untrained and rogue agents. The BLM is nothing more than a bureaucratic agency of terrorism that terrorize Americans, especially ranchers," she said.

Fiore seems to have a misplaced sense of where the word "rogue" belongs. Prior criminal records are not uncommon among Bundy supporters, and new allegations of criminal behavior are coming to light about other participants.

In the latest development on that score, earlier this month the self-styled reporter Michael Emry was arrested and charged with unlawful possession of a machine gun, among other weapons and explosive devices.

Another example, tragically, involves the children of Odalis Sharp. Sharp gained instant notoriety during the Malheur takeover when she traveled from Kansas to Oregon with her children, organized as a troupe of entertainers for Ammon and his gang. Shortly after returning home, five of the 10 siblings "bolted" from home and fled to the local sheriff's office, alleging a history of beatings and other abuse, the Kansas City Star reports.

Image credit: Flickr/Gage Skidmore

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.

Read more stories by Tina Casey