SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — After learning that using state funds might spark a lawsuit, officials sympathetic to a Utah county commissioner made a show of going into their pockets and piling wads of cash on a table Wednesday to pay legal bills from his conviction for protesting federal control of public land.
Within minutes, supporters of San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman had about $6,000 on the table at a states’ rights commission meeting. The governor and others pledged to donate.
The Utah Constitutional Defense Council had considered spending up to $100,000 in state funds to help Lyman, who was found guilty last month on federal misdemeanor charges for a protest ATV ride on a closed federal road. But after attorneys told the council behind closed doors that Utah would likely face a lawsuit for spending taxpayer money, the Utah Association of Counties withdrew its request.
Republican state Rep. Mike Noel said if Utah were sued, that lawsuit could hold up Lyman’s defense. He also said that while he believes Utah has an interest in the case, Lyman could decide to accept his sentence. If Lyman accepts, it won’t help Utah challenge federal road closures, Noel said.
Lyman, who is scheduled to be sentenced in July, attended Wednesday’s meeting and said he doesn’t yet know if he’ll appeal his conviction. He was found guilty of misdemeanor charges of illegal use of ATVs and conspiracy, each of which carries a potential penalty of up to a year in jail and a fine of $100,000. A blogger was also convicted of federal charges.
The Utah Association of Counties, county officials and several state lawmakers said Lyman didn’t get a fair hearing during his trial for making a protest ride through a closed Utah canyon in May 2014.
Democrats argued that Utah should not second-guess jury verdicts or judicial rulings.
“I am not interested in sitting here today, second-guessing a jury who heard this case. That’s not my role. I would submit that’s not the role of any of us here — regardless of how strongly we feel it may have been the wrong verdict,” Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said Wednesday.
After the request to help Lyman was withdrawn, several state and county officials pulled $20, $50 and $100 bills out of their wallets and piled them on a table.
“This is a good man and he stands for a good cause,” Beaver County Commissioner Mark Whitney said before standing up to put down $100.
Republican Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, chairman of the council, said he would donate $1,000 and that Gov. Gary Herbert pledged to donate $10,000.
Noel and Cox told The Associated Press that they spoke with the governor and local officials ahead of Wednesday’s meeting about the possibility of collecting private donations for Lyman, but the issue was not settled until the council met with state attorneys Wednesday.
Herbert was in Nevada on Wednesday for a meeting of the Western Governors’ Association.
The governor intends to use campaign funds to make his donation and will give it to Lyman’s campaign account, Herbert’s spokesman Marty Carpenter said in an email.
State law allows Herbert to use campaign cash to donate to another official’s campaign account but doesn’t address spending by county candidates.
San Juan County Clerk John David Nielson said he didn’t know whether county laws would permit Lyman to use the funds for legal bills.
Noel and Lyman said the commissioner didn’t ask for state money, but Lyman said he appreciated the effort.
“I want to see the state spend their money in the most effective way possible,” Lyman said. “If that meant an appeal, I would support that. If they wanted to fund the appeal, I would support that.”
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management closed southern Utah’s Recapture Canyon in 2007 to motorized vehicles in order to protect ancient ruins, dwellings and artifacts. Area residents have said they used the ATV trail for generations and the closure was supposed to be temporary. The BLM disagrees.
The Constitutional Defense Council controls money set aside by the Legislature for legal battles with the federal government over things such as control of county roads and the fight to wrest control of public land.
Follow Michelle L. Price at https://twitter.com/michellelprice
This story has been corrected to show that the council is meeting Wednesday, not Tuesday.
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