When rancher Cliven Bundy faces a federal judge in Oregon on Tuesday, it won’t be because he is accused with his sons of having a hand in the armed occupation of a federal wildlife preserve that ended last week.
Instead, the 69-year-old patriarch will be answering charges stemming from a 2014 armed standoff that forced federal officials to release cattle being rounded up near his Nevada ranch.
Bundy is the first to face charges in what some advocates hailed as a victory in the fight to turn over federal land to state control.
U.S. Attorney Daniel Bogden in Las Vegas isn’t saying why it took so long to arrest the elder Bundy. He has said only that the investigation is continuing.
Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said there could be many behind-the-scenes reasons for the arrest.
“Negotiations, investigations, safety concerns, administrative concerns,” Levenson said. “There could be an ongoing investigation that could include a grand jury. They could have been waiting for the safest time, the most opportune time.”
Bundy was taken into custody last Wednesday as he stepped off a plane at Portland International Airport. Family members said he was on his way to visit his sons, Ammon and Ryan Bundy, who are jailed and accused of organizing the occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge that lasted nearly six weeks. They had demanded public lands be turned over to locals.
Cliven Bundy is charged in the Nevada case with conspiracy, assault on a federal officer, obstruction, weapon use and possession, extortion to interfere with commerce, and aiding and abetting. If convicted of all six charges, he could spend the rest of his life in federal prison and face more than $1 million in fines.
Officials won’t say if a grand jury has been hearing evidence in the Nevada standoff. But additional arrests are widely expected. Bundy and his sons could still be indicted.
The criminal complaint refers to at least four co-conspirators, but not by name. It accuses Bundy of unlawfully directing them and “more than 200 followers” to stop federal agents and contract cowboys who were trying to enforce a court order to round up about 400 Bundy cattle.
Federal authorities said two years ago that Bundy owed more than $1.1 million in fees and penalties for letting cows graze illegally for decades on public land near his ranch. An updated accounting has not been made, a Bureau of Land Management spokesman said last week.
Bundy asked for a court-appointed attorney at his first hearing last week, but the judge said she wanted to see financial documents first.
It’s a complicated case, and collecting evidence has likely been painstaking work, with results presented in secret to a grand jury, said Richard Pocker, a former U.S. attorney in Nevada.
“They’ve probably been working up to this by talking to a lot of people who showed up as followers, and making deals and trying to get cooperating witnesses,” Pocker said. “It’s really hard to get folks in these movements to cooperate with a grand jury.”
Pocker won convictions in 1987 of five members of an anti-government group accused of threatening the lives of Internal Revenue Service agents and a Nevada state judge. He is not connected with the Bundy case.
Pocker said federal prosecutors will want strong evidence, because the case is likely to reach trial.
Defendants with a political message “may find trial is an opportunity to talk about their credo,” Pocker said. “But no matter how they wrap it up in constitutional dressing, the underlying crimes are serious crimes.”