Lawmakers Recommend Plan to Pay Legal Fees for County Commissioner Accused of Illegal ATV Ride

The state of Utah efforts to pay legal fees for San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman, convicted of illegally driving an ATV into Recapture Canyon in a protest against BLM  road closures, took another step forward Tuesday when a special public lands committee voted to support Lyman’s appeals.

Two Democrats on the Stewardship of Public Lands Commission voted against the measure, the commission’s six Republicans voted for it.

The SPL does NOT have the authority to spend any monies on Lyman – recently convicted in federal court.

He is scheduled to be sentenced in July, and could face two years in jail and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.

The decision on spending state funds on Lyman’s behalf sits with the Constitutional Defense Council – which holds about $1.76 million in state mineral lease and other funds, with the charge to spend the money defending state rights vs. federal control.

The CDC is chaired by Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, four members of legislative leadership (both political parties) and four county commissioners, with non-voting members representing different state and county entities.

Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake, and Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake, both complained that using state funds to defend a private citizen’s civil disobedience acts is just plain wrong – even if those acts were justified in the citizen’s eyes.

At one point, Dabakis tried to amend Rep. Mel Brown’s motion of support for Lyman by adding in the name of Tim DeChristopher – to help with his legal defense costs.

DeChristopher, of course, actually did jail time for, years ago, bidding on federal mineral leases in an open meeting when he never had any intention of paying for those leases – a kind of civil disobedience against drilling on public lands.

Republicans on the commission voted Dabakis down.

Briscoe, a former high school history and government teacher, said he’s studied and taught civil disobedience actions for years.

And he believes there are times when such actions are justified – this is how civil rights law has changed over the nation’s history, he said.

But this is not the case with Lyman, he added.

“We should not be using tax dollars for this,” said Briscoe. There are any number of private or nonprofit groups currently fighting for states rights and access to public lands.

And they should be putting up any money to pay for Lyman’s legal fees or costs associated with appealing his conviction.

Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, who ironically used to work for the BLM in Utah, has been a champion for Lyman and other public lands access issues.

Noel read a long history of the use of a dirt road in Recapture Canyon, into which Lyman and some supporters rode their ATVs last year.

The BLM had closed the road, claiming damage to archeological sites and other problems.

Noel’s detailed argument is that the BLM had no legal right to close the road, that the federal judge hearing Lyman’s case refused to allow such evidence into his trial, and that Lyman’s conviction is a great miscarriage of justice.

Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, said the CDC has a perfect right to spend tax dollars on Lyman’s support – since his whole case is one of states’ rights, and that is what the CDC is supposed to do.

Briscoe asked Noel, who sits on the CDC, several times how much money the state would pay for Lyman’s defense.

Finally, Noel said: “No more than $100,000.”

Well, said Briscoe, someone besides Utah taxpayers “should pony up the $100,000.”

Noel said he was tired of misreporting by the news media on the Lyman case, including saying that “taxpayer dollars” would be spent on the county commissioner.

The CDC is using mineral lease dollars, not General Fund tax revenue, said Noel.

That may be the case, UtahPolicy was told by legislative budget staffers. But mineral lease funds are still considered “taxpayer funds,” because they are collected by the state and are allocated out by the Legislature, which sets state budgets.

Lyman decided to break federal law by riding his ATV into an area closed by the BLM, said Dabakis.

“He made the decision to have a public protest,” said Dabakis. “He has to face the music. We can be sympathetic, but what’s our alternative? We get involved in every court decision we don’t like and make public funds available” to the convicted?

“That is a very bad road.”

By a 6-2 vote, the stewardship commission approved sending a letter to the CDC asking it to investigate the Lyman issue and supported spending state resources in a states’ rights court battle.