Feds Fighting To Keep Oregon Standoff Evidence Secret

"This case calls for more public exposure. Not less."
Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, left, an Arizona rancher, was a prominent occupier before he was shot dead by authorities
Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, left, an Arizona rancher, was a prominent occupier before he was shot dead by authorities in January.

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. government is pushing to keep some evidence in the criminal case against militants who occupied federal property in Oregon secret from people who are not directly involved, including the press. Federal prosecutors claim releasing this information will endanger witnesses.

More than two dozen people face felony conspiracy charges for their role in the 41-day occupation of a remote federal wildlife refuge near Burns. Ammon Bundy, son of Nevada "rancher" Cliven Bundy, who is dealing with his own charges related to a 2014 standoff, led the effort. The armed militants seized the facility to protest the imprisonment of two local ranchers and the federal government's control of public land. The standoff, which ended last month, resulted in numerous arrests and the death of one prominent occupier, LaVoy Finicum, who was shot dead by authorities in January.

On Tuesday, federal prosecutors asked the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon to order certain sensitive government documents, including interviews, physical evidence and law enforcement reports, to be made available only to the defendants and other people closely connected to the case. The government has reportedly shared about 3,500 pages of evidence with defense attorneys so far. The feds want this evidence sealed from anyone not directly involved with the case, including the media.

A federal judge on Wednesday agreed to the government's request, but only on an interim basis. She asked the parties to come up with an order that's more limited in scope. The government will be meeting with members of the defense to figure out what that looks like in the next two weeks, Andrew Kohlmetz, counsel for Jason Patrick, an occupier from Georgia, told The Huffington Post.

The feds' request came the same day federal officials announced an inquiry into why FBI agents did not disclose that they fired shots during the confrontation that led to Finicum's death. (The shots that killed him were fired by Oregon state officers, not the FBI, investigators said.) Sympathizers to the occupiers have treated Finicum -- who police said was armed -- as a martyr, but investigators ruled the use of lethal force was justified.

Government requests for secrecy are not unusual, but they're not common. In a survey published in 2011, about half of defense attorneys reported that the government had requested no protective orders prohibiting or delaying disclosure because of witness safety concerns over a 5-year period. And a little over 20 percent requested protective orders for only two to four cases.

In this legal fight, with activists spreading conspiracy theories and protesters pointing to documented FBI misconduct during the deadly 1992 standoff at Ruby Ridge, the secrecy is likely only to draw more attention to the case.

One of the defendants argued the feds' request is too broad, especially in light of the federal inquiry. "The recent allegations of FBI misconduct in the shooting death of one of the protesters militates for public access to much, if not all, of the discovery material," Kohlmetz wrote in a filing.

The feds argued that good cause exists for their request, because if the names of witnesses are released, they will "almost certainly be subject to threats, intimidation and harassment," wrote FBI special agent Katherine Armstrong.

The FBI cited an example that occurred in December, prior to the occupation, where a person wearing a Bureau of Land Management shirt was confronted in Safeway by two men she identified as defendants. (BLM, which issues grazing permits and leases, is the government agency the protesters tend to blame for mismanaging federal land.) The witness claimed that one of the men threatened to burn her house down, and she was followed multiple times that month.

The FBI said the child of a nearby town's police chief was followed home twice prior to the occupation -- it's not clear how this is connected -- and an environmentalist who protested at the wildlife refuge received death threats. Armstrong cited that defendants and "people sympathetic to them," have made threatening statements on social media.

An attorney for Ammon Bundy argued on Wednesday the FBI wasn't telling the whole story, noting that threats had also been made against defendants.

This isn't the first time allegations of harassment by the protesters have surfaced. The community had a complicated relationship with the occupiers from the start. Some were thankful they drew national attention to economic problems, but didn't approve of their tactics. In January, at a town meeting about the occupation, Harney County Sheriff David Ward told the crowd that deputies were followed home, and his parents were tailed. He also said someone flattened a tire on his wife's car, and she had left town due to stress.  

Kohlmetz argued in a filing that the harassment allegations were not sufficient to quash transparency, and a "simple redaction of personal information," or restrictions on sharing it, could solve the problem.

"This case," he wrote, "calls for more public exposure. Not less."