Oregon standoff negotiations stumble as occupation leader questions FBI authority

The Oregonian/January 22, 2016

By Les Zaitz

Burns – Negotiations to end the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge went awry Friday, as protest leader Ammon Bundy questioned the FBI's legal authority to even be in Harney County.

The next step toward resolving the 3-week-old standoff isn't clear.

The hang-up appears to be Bundy's belief that FBI agents have no standing to deal with the refuge takeover unless they're deputized by Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward.

Militiamen and self-styled patriots contend that under the U.S. Constitution, the sheriff is the highest law enforcement power in the county. The word "sheriff," however, doesn't appear in the Constitution.

That didn't stop Bundy from arriving at the Harney County Courthouse to talk to Ward. Instead, he was left to talk at a security checkpoint with Ward's No. 2, Lt. Brian Needham, who was accompanied by Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe.

Bundy, speaking with an intensity unusual given his typical mild demeanor, insisted on knowing if the FBI had gotten permission to operate in the county. He kept pressing when the sheriff's lieutenant said local and federal authorities were working together.

When Needham said the FBI did have the sheriff's authority, Bundy demanded to see it in writing. He was told no.

A taut-faced Bundy walked away from the encounter and uncharacteristically snapped at a reporter's question: "Don't put words in my mouth."

Asked what his next steps would be, he said he was going back to the refuge to work.

Bundy and a group of about 20 others occupied the headquarters of the bird sanctuary on Jan. 2 and so far have refused to leave, saying they want federal land turned over to county control and the release of two imprisoned local ranchers. Operated by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the reserve covers 187,757 acres of wildlife habitat.

The episode marked a departure from Thursday's scene, when Bundy spent nearly an hour talking to an FBI negotiator by phone. The two had agreed to talk again Friday, and Bundy once again showed up at the Burns Municipal Airport, hoping to meet face-to-face with a negotiator who identified himself only as "Chris."

Bundy's visit this time lasted no more than five minutes before he and several carloads of accompanying militants headed to town for the courthouse.

Bundy and his group have been focused on Ward since before the occupation. They originally sought his help to shield ranchers Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son, Steven, from surrendering earlier this month for federal prison terms. The two were convicted of federal arson charges in 2012 related to range fires they started on the sage lands south of Burns.

Ward refused to intercede and has repeatedly urged Bundy and his followers to break camp and go home.

In some militia circles, the sheriff is viewed as the highest legal authority in a county. The Anti-Defamation League said in its online analysis of that view that a sheriff's "most important role was to protect the people from the unlawful acts of officials of governments like judges and government agents."

The Anti-Defamation League said "sovereign citizens" who believe in the power of the sheriff also believe they can punish a sheriff for failing his duty. That included the "right to hang him."

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