Las Vegas Sun

August 20, 2018

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EDITORIAL:

Botched Bundy trial is no reason for BLM witch hunt

After the stunning dismissal of Cliven Bundy’s criminal charges, it’s natural that people want answers.

But an investigation launched by congressional Republicans into the Bureau of Land Management’s handling of the Bundy mess is littered with red flags. In essence, it appears to be an attack on the BLM and the Obama administration when the focus should be on how to prevent such incidents from happening and protect federal officials who are upholding the law.

The congressional probe started Jan. 10 when Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, and a GOP colleague sent a letter to the BLM’s acting director demanding a report on the incident.

The first sign of trouble was that the acting director, Brian Steed, was given only until Wednesday to deliver his report, after which there are expected to be congressional hearings on the matter.

That’s an awfully short turnaround for Steed’s report, which suggests minds may already be made up. It didn’t help, either, that Bishop and his colleague stated in a letter to Steed that, “The failures in the Bundy case and previous cases display serious misconduct by BLM law enforcement officials, and strongly suggest there are systematic issues within BLM’s law enforcement operations.”

Now, wait a minute. Let’s not forget who were the real bad guys in the matter — the Bundys and their armed gang.

Bundy was the one who chose to defy the government by not paying grazing fees he owed, which prompted the BLM’s roundup of his cattle and led to the standoff in the so-called Battle of Bunkerville.

Bundy is the one who welcomed dozens of armed-to-the-teeth militia members from across the country to his ranch. He’s the one who riled them up with red-meat pep talks about government tyranny, resulting in open threats against law enforcement authorities.

Remember, we’re talking about masses of people from out of state training guns on officials doing their duty. If the Trump administration and Congress are serious about law and order, they should come down on that behavior instead of taking aim at the BLM.

Think there would be the same focus if the Bundy supporters weren’t predominately white and instead were, say, Muslim?

Doubtful. Highly doubtful.

This isn’t to say the government doesn’t deserve scrutiny. Officials clearly made mistakes, including establishing outrageous “First Amendment zones” to restrict protests. And in a related matter, it’s completely appropriate that the federal prosecutors who handled Bundy’s criminal case now find themselves under investigation by the Justice Department. That probe was ordered after U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro ruled that the prosecutors committed “flagrant” misconduct by withholding critical and “potentially exculpatory” evidence from defense attorneys during Bundy’s trial.

But dissecting the BLM’s actions is OK only if the purpose is to shine light on mistakes and correct them.

If, though, the congressional investigation is merely an excuse to beat up the Obama administration and handcuff the BLM, it could have serious implications as far as the use — or abuse — of public lands. It also could further embolden the Bundy family and their sovereign citizen/militia extremist supporters, who are riding high after the dismissal of Bundy’s criminal case this month.

What really needs to happen is a broader congressional discussion about the use of public lands. If Bundy can get away with letting his scrawny cows clomp around in Bunkerville, tearing up the delicate environment and sucking up the limited water supply, what’s to stop someone else from doing whatever they want on that land?

That question is still hanging out there, more than three years after the showdown in Bunkerville. The dismissal of the charges against Bundy may have brought closure to his criminal case, but it didn’t come close to resolving the issue that led to those charges being filed in the first place.