Letters from the West

As Bundy trial neared, Labrador caught AG Sessions’ ear about Idaho defendants

Protester Eric Parker from central Idaho aims his weapon from a bridge next to the Bureau of Land Management's base camp where seized cattle, that belonged to rancher Cliven Bundy, were being held April 12, 2014 near Bunkerville, Nevada.
Protester Eric Parker from central Idaho aims his weapon from a bridge next to the Bureau of Land Management's base camp where seized cattle, that belonged to rancher Cliven Bundy, were being held April 12, 2014 near Bunkerville, Nevada. Reuters

U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador talked to Attorney General Jeff Sessions about looking into the prosecution, bail and sentences of four Idahoans caught up in the 2014 standoff between federal law enforcement officers, a Nevada rancher and 1,000 private militia members.

The conversation came after the Idaho Republican wrote Sessions in support of a separate letter signed by more than 50 Idaho lawmakers that urged Sessions to stop the third trial of two men whose earlier trials ended in acquittals or deadlocked juries. He suggested “a strong possibility that a miscarriage of justice is being committed.”

Eric Parker, an electrician from Hailey; O. Scott Drexler, a fence builder from Challis; and Todd Engel, of Boundary County, all answered the call of Bunkerville rancher Cliven Bundy and his sons Ammon (the fourth Idahoan) and Ryan when the Bureau of Land Management was rounding up his cows. Bundy had failed to pay more than $1 million in fees for grazing his cattle on public land; the standoff, like the later occupation of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by Ammon and Ryan Bundy, infuriated many.

“The Bureau of Land Management is charged to manage public lands for multiple uses,” said Idaho House Minority Leader Matt Erpelding, a Boise Democrat. “These people were using the threat of violence to prevent them from doing their job.”

Jury selection began this week in the trial of Cliven Bundy, his two sons, and Ryan Payne, a militia leader from Montana. The four are accused of assault, threatening federal officers and other felony conspiracy charges. But Parker, 34, and Drexler, 47, will not be sitting next to them.

Following Labrador’s talk with Sessions, Parker and Drexler accepted a plea bargain deal with acting U.S. Attorney Steven Myhre, dropping their felony charges down to a misdemeanor charge of obstruction of a court order. They still could face a possible sentence of one year in federal prison.

Pictures of Parker — prone on an overpass in a sniper position, wearing a baseball cap and a flak jacket, and aiming his assault rifle toward the BLM’s base camp — ran all over the world in 2014. Labrador said he got involved in the case as part of years of advocating “for fair and equal justice under the law.”

“My letter and subsequent conversation with Attorney General Sessions were consistent with my record of speaking out when government moves to threaten the liberty of American citizens without proper due process,” Labrador said in a statement referencing past bipartisan efforts on criminal justice reform in both the Idaho Legislature and Congress.

State Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, circulated the legislators’ letter along with its author, Stanley Republican Rep. Dorothy Moon. Boyle praised Labrador, who she said followed the words of Alexander Hamilton to be “jealous guardians of the rights of the citizens against encroachment of the federal government.”

“We, and Raúl, take that duty to heart and our combined actions made a significant difference,” Boyle said.

Parker’s attorney, Jesse Marchese, said his client and Drexler appreciated the letters and the lawmakers’ support. But he doubted it had any impact on the plea bargaining.

“I don’t think it had any bearing on the case,” Marchese said.

The Department of Justice did not respond to an inquiry about Labrador’s conversation. None of the rest of Idaho’s congressional delegation interceded.

The lawmakers who signed the Moon letter also asked Sessions to allow the option of release for Ammon Bundy, of Emmett, who has been held without bail since his arrest on an Oregon highway in 2016 after leading the armed Malheur takeover. He remained in jail even after a jury found him and his brother not guilty of charges resulting from that takeover.

Engel was convicted in the first Bunkerville trial of obstruction and traveling across state lines in aid of extortion. He awaits sentencing; the lawmakers want him released for time served.

The letter might not have affected the outcome, but it did show how Idaho Republicans continue their shift to the right. It also showed the political skills of Moon and Boyle. They got many mainstream Republicans who might disagree with the Bundys’ beliefs to join a smaller group who supports the family’s view that the federal government doesn’t own the public land Cliven’s cattle grazed on.

The idea that the federal government overreached in its prosecution of Parker and Drexler was an easier concept for lawmakers to hang their hat on, even if they saw the pictures from the standoff.

“There’s probably more to the story,” House Majority Leader Mike Moyle said, referring to the photos.

The list of more than 50 who signed included Moyle, Assistant Majority Leader Brent Crane, Meridian Sen. Clifford Bayer and Three Creek Sen. Bert Brackett, a prominent rancher who disagrees with Bundy’s position.

“I pay my grazing fees,” Brackett said.

He signed, he said, because he didn’t think Drexler and Parker should face another trial. He also defends their right and the Bundys’ right to protest.

And, he said, they made their case stronger when they accepted justice with their plea.

“We all have the right to protest, but it comes with consequences,” Brackett said.

CORRECTION: Only the Idaho state lawmakers asked for the release of Ammon Bundy in their letter to Sessions.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker