By MARK ANDERSON / The TRUTH HOUND
Stop the Presses News & Commentary
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LAS VEGAS—Although the ongoing Bundy trial in the U.S. District Court in Las Vegas, Nevada has had its share of dramatic changes, that’s especially true lately.
A major twist is that internet-radio personality Pete Santilli — one of seven defendants in the trial that had been set to begin with jury selection on Oct. 10th before it was delayed again —“plead guilty (on Friday, Oct. 6) and was released pending sentencing,” confirmed his attorney, Chris Rasmussen of Las Vegas.
In that highly anticipated trial, with Santilli now excluded due to his plea, the federal government is trying elder rancher Cliven Bundy (image, left), his sons Ammon and Ryan, and “militia leader” Ryan Payne. Two other defendants, O. Scott Drexler and Eric Parker, who are being retried for a third time from earlier proceedings will join the others in this second of three planned trials.
Another development affecting the trial is concern that the Oct. 1st mass shooting at Mandalay Bay Hotel might prevent the defendants from getting a fair shake. According to Ryan Payne’s attorney, the Vegas shooting has the potential to bias jurors, and has asked that the trial be moved to Nevada’s second largest city, Reno, located seven hours north of Las Vegas.
But while moving the proceedings 450 miles away to Reno’s federal court appears unlikely as of this writing, the Las Vegas federal court issued yet another delay in this complicated trial. Therefore, the previously announced Oct. 10 date for jury selection for the second trial will be changed to on, or around, Oct. 30th.
And even that could be subject to change again, given the already bumpy track record of this multiple-defendant case — in which the federal government has had a hard time making its allegations stick.
Only Gregory Burleson, who’s wheelchair-bound and reportedly has developed blindness, has been sentenced — to 68 years, no less. He was convicted in the first trial that began in early February. A co-defendant in that trial, Todd Engel, is expected to be sentenced Dec. 22, though several other defendants have been cleared of numerous charges.
Santilli, who shot extended livestream video footage at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge building near Burns, Oregon, was held on remand for his role in that latter-2015, early-2016 affair.
The controversial internet radio personality has had his share of critics, both in and out of the court room. Some critics alleged that his some of the “journalistic” coverage shot in Oregon enabled the government to more closely monitor the Bundys and their supporters who had peacefully occupied the abandoned building to protest onerous federal land controls and the unlawful arrest of the Hammonds, local ranchers who had fallen foul of federal agents from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Others, however, felt his coverage would have provided a helpful account of events had federal agents decided to take the building by force. During the Oregon hearings, his defense attorney argued that much footage which he had broadcast on his YouTube channel should be considered as protected speech under the First Amendment.
On the eve of last September’s Oregon trial Santilli had all charges dismissed against him.
Although later cleared of Oregon-related charges, Santilli remained in federal custody and was transferred to Nevada to stand trial for his role in the famous spring 2014 “standoff” at Bundy Ranch in Bunkerville, Nevada – an event that saw Cliven Bundy, his sons and other supporters gather to protest the policies of the BLM and other agencies.
Federal agents unsuccessfully attempted to confiscate Cliven’s cattle over alleged claims that he owed significant federal grazing fees, and concerning a EPA court order over a contested environmental mitigation policy concerned the relocation of the Desert Tortoise. From the onset of the controversy, Cliven Bundy has maintained the federal government lacks jurisdiction in that part of southern Nevada and that the fees don’t apply, citing legal and historical matters.
In Nevada, Santilli pleaded guilty to Count 2 — a single felony count of obstruction of justice, based on the government’s claim that he used his own vehicle to impede the movement of an approaching BLM convoy during the attempted cattle impoundment. Interestingly, during that incident, after the convoy stopped, federal agents and their guard dogs were then confronted by members of the Bundy family and their supporters. Santilli then filmed the altercation, including federal agents tasering Ammon Bundy, and posted it on YouTube, which went instantly viral, garnering nearly 1.5 million views in just a few days. The video was then syndicated on FOX News and other national outlets. Many had credited Santilli’s original video entitled, “Ranch Riot“ as one of the key catalysts for the one thousand or so supporters and militia who then arrived at Bundy Ranch over the following 72 hours before the standoff on April 12, 2014.
Like all the other defendants, he was initially charged with all 16 counts contained in the original federal complaint — which carried a potential maximum sentence of life in prison, upon conviction for all or most of those counts.
Interestingly, Santilli’s attorney, Mr. Rasmussen, motioned in court, and later told this writer, that the government may consider the prison time that Santilli has already served — behind bars since Jan. 26, 2016 — as either sufficient punishment for that felony charge in a best-case scenario, or the court may at least consider giving him credit for that time served, even if he’s given a longer sentence at his expected sentencing hearing on Jan. 11, 2018 at 8 a.m.
PLEA BARGAIN DETAILS
A reading of the plea agreement shows that the government reserves the right to impose a longer prison term, possibly six years, on Santilli.
Also, Rasmussen noted that residing Judge Gloria Navarro is not bound by the agreement’s recommendations, meaning she could choose to alter them when she sentences Santilli.
Meanwhile, two pending defense motions — one to exclude Oregon-related evidence in the government’s Nevada case against Santilli, and another to challenge the government’s claim that Santilli could not excuse his Nevada actions because of his journalistic background — have become moot due to this plea bargain, Rasmussen added.
The agreement’s terms may raise the question of whether the other defendants’ actions will be seen in a more negative light, given the fact that Santilli’s guilty plea to the felony-obstruction charge requires — under penalty of perjury — that he accept the following government-sourced narrative as “true and correct.”
- “Beginning on or around March 28, 2014, federal law enforcement officers from the United States Department of Interior, Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service were engaged in the official duties of executing federal court orders to remove and impound cattle trespassing upon federal public lands in and around Bunkerville, Nevada, the cattle belonging to Cliven Bundy, a local rancher.
- “Defendant Santilli knew that Cliven Bundy and his sons, Ammon, Dave, Mel, and Ryan, (collectively, “the Bundys”), and others associated with them, planned to thwart, impede and interfere with impoundment operations.
- “On April 9, 2014, Defendant Santilli used force to prevent officers from discharging their duties by using his vehicle to block BLM law enforcement officers and civilian employees as they were performing their duties related to the impoundment.
- “Defendant Santilli drove his vehicle straight toward a BLM law enforcement officer’s vehicle, preventing the officer and the rest of the convoy behind him from being able to move forward.
- “The officer ordered Defendant Santilli to move out of the way but Defendant Santilli continued to block the convoy’s path. Defendant Santilli finally reversed his vehicle out of the path of the convoy only after the officer repeated the command several times.
- “By using force to block the convoy, Defendant Santilli allowed others to surround the convoy and threaten the occupants of the vehicles by force violence and fear, inducing the officers to leave the place where their duties were required to be performed.
- “Defendant Santilli acknowledges that all of the above took place within the State and Federal District of Nevada.”
The maximum penalty for “Conspiracy to Impede or Injure a Federal Officer,” as this count against Santilli is formally named under 18 U.S.C. § 372, is six years imprisonment, a fine of $250,000, or both.
But in the shifting sands of these proceedings, the understanding at this juncture is that Santilli will owe neither a fine nor restitution, nor will there be forfeiture of his assets — provided he meets the terms of his release until he’s sentenced. Although according to Rasmussen, Santilli will not be electronically monitored, despite speculation that he would be tagged.
RETURNING TO INTERNET RADIO
Notably, Santilli, who is expected to return to his hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, during the week starting Monday Oct. 16, will reportedly be allowed, at least for the time being, to resume broadcasting his news content.
Asked if Santilli would be able to comment on the Bundy trial itself, Rasmussen replied in writing: “He can do whatever he wants as long as he’s not committing crimes. The First Amendment allows him to comment on anything unless it is threatening or inciting violence.”
Furthermore, attorney Rasmussen said that Santilli is under a “self-imposed” gag order, not a government-imposed one, meaning he has chosen not to talk to reporters.
Also, Santilli will not testify against the other defendants and will not have to turn over his journalistic “work products,” but only “raw discovery” information from court proceedings. And the plea bargain stresses he must remain crime-free regarding federal, state and local laws and among other things must avoid any known association with anyone who’s breaking any law. The plea agreement also restricts him from significant travel – initially only between southern Nevada and Cincinnati, Ohio.
Nor can Santilli possess a gun or any other item deemed by the government as a weapon. Just failing to show up for a hearing or some other procedural matter, let alone larger infractions, could result in this deal being dissolved.