Former Utah U.S. Attorney Brett Tolman is praising the FBI’s top official in Oregon for his leadership in a standoff with anti-government occupiers of a wildlife refuge.
Special Agent in Charge Greg Bretzing did the right thing in releasing aerial video of a deadly confrontation with a protester, Tollman said in a Jan. 29 interview with the Fox affiliate in Salt Lake City.
The video shows Robert ‘LaVoy’ Finicum appearing to charge law enforcement officers after crashing his vehicle in snow while trying to circumvent an FBI road block. An Oregon state police officer shot Finicum to death after he appeared to reach into his waistband. Finicum was found to have a loaded 9 mm semiautomatic handgun in his pocket, Bretzing said in a statement at a Jan. 28 press conference.
Tolman said transparency helps the public understand whether “anyone that’s empowered to use deadly force, are they using it appropriately?”
Tolman and Bretzing share some relevant history. Seven years ago, they worked side-by-side on a massive investigation into thefts of Indian artifacts from the four corners region of Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico.
Like the recent standoff at Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, anger at the federal Bureau of Land Management and its federal ownership of Western lands lurked in the background.
The artifacts investigation came to light on June 10, 2009, when FBI and BLM agents conducted coordinated raids to round up the defendants.
Later that day, Tolman stood alongside then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and then-Deputy Attorney General David Ogden to announce 12 indictments charging 24 individuals with stealing Indian artifacts from public lands.
But the fanfare quickly faded into black for the feds, as it emerged that four of the defendants were more than 70 years old. Two defendants and an undercover operative later committed suicide. The government was accused of heavy handedness against people who had been collecting artifacts their entire lives.
Bretzing was the Assistant Special Agent in Charge in the FBI’s Salt Lake City office during the artifacts investigation.
One of the defendants who committed suicide after the raids was a doctor named James Redd of Blanding, Utah.
His estate later sued Bureau of Land Management agent Daniel Love and others involved in the raid. Bretzing gave a declaration in the lawsuit describing threats that law enforcement officers had received while attempting to serve arrest warrants on Redd and his wife.
While at the Redds’ home, “federal personnel overheard several voice mails left on the Redd’s answering machine, two of which appeared to be directed at the search team,” Bretzing said in the July 10, 2015 declaration.
The federal agents believe the voice mails had come from one of the Redd’s adult sons, Bretzing said in the declaration. One message said, “Is anybody there? … You gonna pick up the phone? All right. I’ll be in there in a little bit. Be ready.” A second voice mail said, “Hey, you guys still too scared to answer the phone? Don’t touch anything of mind. Trust me. You don’t want to.”
The perceived threats prompted FBI SWAT team agents on the scene assisting in evidence search to “transform into a protective role” by retrieving “long guns” from their vehicles to take up “tactical positions at or around the residence,” Bretzing said in the declaration.
A federal judge in December dismissed the Redd lawsuit on a motion for summary judgment, saying: “The Estate has failed to meet its high burden to clearly demonstrate that Agent Love violated Dr. Redd’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from the use of excessive force.”
Hatred of the BLM
The occupation that began Jan. 2 of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service facility near Burns, Ore., also has roots in a confrontation with the BLM.
It was led by Ammon Bundy, the son of Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who refused to pay a $2 million bill for grazing his cattle on federal land.
The Oregon protest stemmed from a case against two local ranchers — a father and son — who were convicted of setting a fire to cover up the illegal killing of deer on federal land. The fire consumed 139 acres of public land adjacent to the ranchers’ land.
Tolman: rule of law distinguishes America
In his interview with the Fox affiliate in Salt Lake City, Tolman said, “I don’t think this issue is going away.”
He cited “the increase in attention to federal action in this area” as well as “the Tea Party movement” as factors. He added: “The much more conservative philosophy that seems to be growing, I think we’re going to see more and more of these. I think it’s going to be an issue that the federal government, at high levels, is going to have to address.”
He said there are non-violent ways to “make a difference.”
“You go about trying to make a difference through the rule of law, and that’s what’s made us different from a lot of other societies … and once you get to a standoff with federal authorities, you’ve lost the ability to actually make any meaningful change,” he said.
Tolman, a George W. Bush appointee, served as Utah U.S. Attorney from 2006 until December 2009, when he stepped down to join Salt Lake City law firm Ray Quinney & Nebeker, where he is now chairman of the firm’s white collar criminal defense and corporate compliance practice group.