San Juan commissioner wants feds to pay for his lawyer in government protest case

Posted at 12:31 PM, Dec 23, 2014

SALT LAKE CITY — A San Juan County commissioner facing misdemeanor charges in connection with a government protest appeared in court on Tuesday, asking the feds to pay for his lawyer.

Commissioner Phil Lyman had been appointed a federal public defender to represent him in the criminal case against him over the Recapture Canyon protest earlier this year. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for Utah objected, claiming he made too much money to have a public defense attorney.

Prosecutors told the judge that Lyman was an accountant with his own business, and claimed he owns nearly $650,000 worth of property in the Four Corners area. They said he could afford his own attorney.

But the commissioner’s appointed defense attorney told the judge that he didn’t believe the government was merely worried about his financial affairs.

“At some point, I think, the perception becomes that this is beyond just an inquiry into finances but it becomes tangential to the case and could potentially become harassment,” defense attorney Kent Hart told the judge.

U.S. District Court Judge Evelyn Furse closed the court hearing to ask Lyman about his finances. She re-opened the hearing and announced Lyman should hire his own lawyer.

The commissioner declined to comment to FOX 13 as he left federal court on Tuesday. In a statement Wednesday, Lyman said:

“I have expressed my respect for the decisions of the Federal court. In October, when the court assigned me an attorney from the Federal Defenders Office, I questioned the Judge on my appointment and my qualification for a public defender. The judge explained that I would be required to pay for these services based on my financial ability. I have never attempted to get “free” legal counsel, or to game the system. For two months I have worked closely with my attorneys to come to an understanding of the issues surrounding my case, i.e. the county road, the right-of-way, the boundaries of the BLM closure, the history of the Trail in Recapture Canyon, and the event on May 10, 2014 which was a community effort designed to bring attention to the breakdown in process. Now the court, at the urging of the prosecuting attorney, has ordered a termination of that relationship. I was disappointed by the decision, not from a financial perspective but because it is a setback to my case and the cases of those who are co defendants.”

“We respect the judge’s decision,” Hart said.

Lyman is one of five people facing criminal charges in connection with the Recapture Canyon ride last may, where demonstrators rode ATVs through the canyon to protest the Bureau of Land Management’s decision to close it to them.

San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman leaves federal court on Dec. 23, 2014.

San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman leaves federal court on Dec. 23, 2014.