Federal employees talked about the “crazies” from across the United States who were coming to Bunkerville to support rancher Cliven Bundy. After corralling Bundy’s free-roaming “trespass” cattle from the Gold Butte range in 2014, agents were bracing for a violent confrontation.
Some employees feared for their lives as suggestive threats surfaced and were circulated among Interior Department and law enforcement officials, according to emails obtained by the Las Vegas Review-Journal through a Freedom of Information Act request.
After more than two years of gathering, redacting and delaying release of the documents, the Bureau of Land Management this week provided the newspaper with more than 400 pages of blacked-out emails and reports.
The newspaper contends so much requested information is missing that the BLM response lacks the transparency required by the act.
“ ‘Better late than never’ doesn’t cut it when it comes to the release of public records,” Review-Journal Editor Keith Moyer said. “But it’s especially intolerable when the government takes years to provide documents that can’t be read because they’re so heavily redacted. The Interior Department’s response in no way satisfies our FOIA request and leaves far too many questions about the 2014 Bunkerville standoff unanswered.”
Review-Journal attorney Maggie McLetchie said, “FOIA was designed to ensure openness in government. We are studying the BLM’s response and considering future options.”
The documents show the BLM was not only worried about 2,000 self-styled militia descending on a corral near Bunkerville, where about 350 head of Bundy’s cattle were impounded along the Virgin River, but bureau and National Park Service public affairs staff also were preparing now-censored scripts to deal with the media if something tragic happened.
The emails say that federal agents overheard at a Wal-Mart in nearby Mesquite, 75 miles northeast of Las Vegas, that a protest by 2,000 people was mounting.
The newspaper sought emails that were copied to BLM District Manager Tim Smith, BLM Director Neil Kornze and then-Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie.
The FOIA request, which consolidated two previous requests received by the BLM on April 13, 2014, hours after the standoff ended, also sought documents about the cost of the failed $1 million effort to remove Bundy’s cattle from the range and sell them at auction.
Those documents show the BLM reduced a fraction of the $966,000 contract for a helicopter-roundup outfit because the detail to impound and truck the Gold Butte range cattle north to Utah had been cut short “for safety reasons.”
Not counting personnel costs or costs racked up by the FBI and other participating federal agencies, nearly $1 million was spent on the helicopter roundup and impoundment of Bundy’s cattle, including an invoice for more than $16,000 for command post trailers provided by Modular Space Corp. in Berwyn, Pennsylvania.
The newspaper had sought credit card records, money transfer records and other charges that were paid through BLM and Interior Department accounts, but none were provided in the documents released by the BLM.
An order for a helicopter company was placed Feb. 7, 2014, by the BLM’s Las Vegas Field Office. It called for a cost that “shall not exceed $966,000” based on a rate of $700 per head, or $770,000 for a possible 1,100 head; feed and care at $8 per head for $44,000; and transportation at $4.50 per mile.
After the armed standoff ended April 12, 2014, when BLM agents allowed Bundy’s supporters to release all the cattle from the corral, the contract was partially terminated “for convenience … due to unsafe site conditions and …” The end of that sentence was blacked out.
As a result, the order’s amount was reduced by about $126,767 to $839,233.
The contractor’s name and address were redacted under Freedom of Information Act exemptions that protect unwarranted invasion of personal privacy in law enforcement records and a determination by BLM FOIA Officer Ryan Witt that releasing the information “could reasonably be expected to endanger the life or physical safety of any individual,” according to the BLM’s May 12 letter that accompanied the redacted documents.
THREATS TO BLM EMPLOYEES
BLM officials were leery of threats of physical harm to employees, according to some emails.
One handwritten note that begins, “Dear Feds,” was faxed among Interior Department officials. “I’m angry that you feel you can steal a ranch that has been this man’s family since the 1800s,” the letter reads. “Stop Now! before there is blood shed!
“How dare you! think you can do this because you have badges + guns does not give you the right to behave unconstitutionally …. We the People have had enough of the Government gangs and their Brutal actions against the public,” reads the letter that was forwarded April 10, 2014, two days before the standoff ended, to undisclosed recipients in the Interior Department.
Then-U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., in one staff memo, offered “congrats” to the BLM’s Bundy detail team.
But for what and to whom is unclear because most of the email and purchase documents the BLM provided are either blacked out entirely or heavily redacted. Twenty-two pages out of 442 “were withheld in full,” and 359 pages were withheld “in part.” Many of those pages, however, show only a date, a few words and an agency logo.
Five days after the standoff ended, Reid publicly described Bundy’s supporters as “nothing more than domestic terrorists.”
One memo said, “Several crazies are arriving daily from out of state to support the Bundys, and he is afraid these actions by the government will incite violence from one of the aforementioned crazies.
“He would like reporters or representatives of the government to be alongside BLM and their subcontractors to witness the round-up and provide in-partial 3rd party verification of what is happening. — April 8,” reads the memo that doesn’t identify who “he” is.
Another BLM email spells out the dangers of the roundup.
“I have hoped for a peaceful operation, however it appears that isn’t happening,” reads the email written on Sunday, April 6, 2014, at 7:30 a.m.
“I’m not feeling good about the protests planned partly because of the compound 1st amendment area. Imagine the pickets on the LV Strip on hwy 170,” the email reads.
“The BLM failure to attend a scheduled Bunkerville Town Board meeting has set the tone. That and a couple reported incidents (alleged guns drawn) have escalated this beyond what should be occurring,” it says.
Before the standoff ended, Bundy supporters had pointed rifles at the contingent of law enforcement personnel from an array of federal agents who were prepared to fire their weapons.
Little did BLM officials know at the time that this would be a prelude to the January 2016 occupation of a wildlife refuge in east Oregon that ended after a militia spokesman and Bundy’s friend, LaVoy Finicum, was shot dead by troopers after he tried to evade a roadblock.
On Feb. 10, five days after Bundy led a horseback procession at Finicum’s funeral in Kanab, Utah, he was arrested in Oregon on his way to support the wildlife refuge protest. He was returned to Las Vegas and jailed to face federal charges in connection with the April 2014 standoff in Bunkerville.
In all, 19 defendants, including Bundy and four of his sons, face felony charges including conspiracy, obstruction, extortion and assault in connection with the April 2014 standoff with law enforcement. They are all in federal custody with a trial set to start on Feb. 6.
In an interview six months after the standoff, Bundy told the Review-Journal, “One backfire of a vehicle, one firecracker, one somebody makes a crazy gunshot. It was that close, and it could have been either side’s fault. … It could have been We-The-People’s fault, or it could have been the government agency’s fault.”
Contact Keith Rogers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0308. Find @KeithRogers2 on Twitter.