Trump pardons ranchers whose arrests led to armed occupation of wildlife refuge

 foxnews.com  7/10/2018 11:30:00 PM  4  Andrew O'Reilly

President Trump on Tuesday pardoned the father and son ranchers from Oregon whose imprisonment for setting fires on federal land sparked a 41-day takeover of a wildlife refuge in the state.

Trump signed the order granting clemency to 76-year-old Dwight Hammond and his son, Steven Hammond, 49, who were convicted of arson in 2012 for fires that burned on federal land in 2001 and 2006.

Morgan Philpot, an attorney for the Hammonds, confirmed to Fox News that they had been released from a federal detention center south of Los Angeles Tuesday afternoon.

Dwight Hammond and his son, Steven Hammond, were convicted of arson in 2012.

Though they served their original sentences for the conviction -- Dwight serving three months, Steven serving one year -- an appellate judge ruled in 2015 that the terms were too short under federal minimum sentencing laws and the Hammonds were resentenced to serve the mandatory minimum. This decision led to the 2016 protests. 

“The Hammonds are multi-generation cattle ranchers in Oregon imprisoned in connection with a fire that leaked onto a small portion of neighboring public grazing land,” the White House said in a statement. “The evidence at trial regarding the Hammonds’ responsibility for the fire was conflicting, and the jury acquitted them on most of the charges.”

The statement added: “Justice is overdue for Dwight and Steven Hammond, both of whom are entirely deserving of these Grants of Executive Clemency.” 

Dwight has so far served about three years in prison and Steven has served about four years. They have also paid $400,000 to the United States to settle a related civil suit.

The resentencing sparked a protest from Ammon Bundy and dozens of others, who occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near the Hammond ranch in southeastern Oregon from Jan. 2 to Feb. 11, 2016.

The armed occupiers changed the refuge's name to the Harney County Resource Center, reflecting their belief that the federal government has only a very limited right to own property within a state's borders.

During the standoff at the refuge, FBI Agent W. Joseph Astarita allegedly fired shots during the arrest of rancher Robert "LaVoy" Finicum. Astarita later was accused of falsely denying he fired two shots at Finicum or his truck and pleaded not guilty to three counts of making a false statement and two counts of obstruction of justice.

During the standoff at the refuge, state troopers shot and killed rancher Robert "LaVoy" Finicum. FBI Agent W. Joseph Astarita later was accused of falsely denying he also fired two shots at Finicum or his truck and pleaded not guilty to three counts of making a false statement and two counts of obstruction of justice.

This is the latest in a series of Trump pardons. 

Back in April, Trump pardoned Scooter Libby, the former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney who was ensnared in what was known as the “Valerie Plame affair” during the Bush administration.

“I don’t know Mr. Libby,” Trump said in a statement. “But for years I have heard that he has been treated unfairly. Hopefully, this full pardon will help rectify a very sad portion of his life."

Trump recently pardoned a former Navy sailor after he served a year in federal prison for taking photos of classified sections of his submarine and, in May, he pardoned conservative filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza, who was convicted of making an illegal campaign contribution in 2014.

In June, Trump also granted clemency to Alice Marie Johnson, who was convicted in 1996 on eight criminal counts related to a Memphis-based cocaine trafficking operation. Her involvement with cocaine dealers reportedly came about after she lost her job, her son was killed, she got divorced and her home was foreclosed on.  

Critics say the president could be ignoring valid claims for clemency as he works outside the typical pardon process, focusing on cases brought to his attention by friends, famous people and conservative media pundits.

Aides say that Trump has been especially drawn to cases in which he believes the prosecution may have been politically motivated — a situation that may remind him of his own position at the center of the ongoing special counsel investigation into Russian election meddling.

Many have also seen the president as sending a signal with his pardons to former aides and associates caught up in the probe, or lashing out at enemies like former FBI Director James Comey, who oversaw the prosecution of lifestyle guru Martha Stewart, whom Trump has said he is thinking of pardoning.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

EDITOR’S NOTE: A previous version of this report stated that FBI Agent W. Joseph Astarita allegedly shot Robert "LaVoy" Finicum. In fact, prosecutors allege that Astarita fired shots, but not that the shots hit Finicum.

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