Editorial: A maddening turn in the Bundy case

  • Jerry DeLemus of Rochester is shown at the Cliven Bundy ranch near Bunkerville, Nev., on April 16, 2014. AP

Thursday, January 11, 2018

The American people deserve to be angry. They should demand that those at fault be held accountable. Faith, not in the judicial system, but in the ethics and intelligence of federal law enforcement, has been shaken.

Earlier this week, U.S. District Court Judge Gloria Navarro issued a ruling that freed Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, his two sons and an ally of the family. The Bundys, who after freeloading by grazing their cattle on public land for years while refusing to pay taxpayers for the privilege, organized an armed rebellion in 2014 against federal authorities who came to collect. The Bundys refused to recognize federal ownership of land in Nevada, and owed taxpayers roughly $1 million in grazing fees. They recruited a militia of fanatics to protect them.

Some 19 people were charged with various crimes for threatening to thwart federal agents’ attempts to impound Bundy cattle to settle the debt. The first person sentenced as a result of the armed standoff, in which federal agents backed off rather than risk bloodshed, was a New Hampshire man, Gerald “Jerry” DeLemus of Rochester.

DeLemus was co-chairman of President Donald Trump’s state veterans coalition, a founder of a Tea Party group, husband of a then state representative, and an unsuccessful candidate for sheriff and mayor of Rochester. A Marine veteran, DeLemus said he was “willing to take a bullet to protect the family.” He joined the ersatz militia of protectors with an assault-style rifle he brought with him from New Hampshire.

DeLemus pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit an offense against the nation and interstate travel in aid of extortion. He later tried to withdraw his plea, an act that led the sentencing judge, Gloria Navarro, to add a year to the six-year sentence requested by prosecutors. In court, Navarro, an Obama appointee, called DeLemus a “bullying vigilante.” He is currently in a prison in Fort Devens, Mass.

Now the men DeLemus foolishly traveled west to protect from law enforcement are free because the U.S. attorney’s office in Nevada and the FBI “willfully” withheld evidence that might have been favorable to the Bundys’ case. The prosecution team showed “a reckless disregard for the constitutional obligation to seek and provide evidence,” Navarro wrote. The documents, some withheld for several years, provided information favorable to the Bundys and may have altered the trial strategy of their defense team. The harm done to the case, Navarro felt, was irreparable.

The Bundys, and other advocates of states assuming authority over the federal lands within their borders, greedily ignore history and the ownership by all Americans of federal lands. The anti-government sentiment that permeates their thinking is, at heart, undemocratic.

The wrongful actions of law enforcement were the result of arrogance, not error. Prosecutors, we believe, felt they could withhold evidence because they could get away with it. As a result, zealots who’ve been cheating taxpayers for years and should be behind bars are free.

At his sentencing, Judge Navarro said, “I have to say, Mr. DeLemus, that you are unfortunately blinded by the information you choose to believe.” We, like most citizens, choose to believe that members of law enforcement play fair and follow the law. The Bundy affair suggests that that belief may be on shaky ground.