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Antigovernment Pond Builder in Montana Sentenced to Prison

Antigovernment activist sentenced to 18 months in prison for building illegal ponds on public lands. Already, the movement inspired by Nevada cattle rancher Cliven Bundy is sounding alarm. 

A 77-year-old former construction company owner, convicted by a jury of causing significant environmental damage to public lands in Montana, was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison and ordered to pay $130,000 in restitution. 

The case of Joseph David Robertson became the cause célèbre of antigovernment, Patriot and militia groups in the West after the 41-day illegal occupation of an Oregon wildlife refuge by armed militia and members of the Cliven Bundy family.

Robertson was immediately handcuffed and taken into federal custody after his sentencing hearing on Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Missoula, where 50 members of Oath Keepers and Bundy supporters showed up to back his defiant stand against the government. Two of his supporters were ejected from the courtroom for unruly conduct.

Afterwards, one antigovernment website said Robertson, a military veteran who lives near Basin, Mont., in the central part of the state, was “ambushed” at the court proceeding. Some of his supporters apparently were under the belief that Robertson would be allowed to remain free, pending the appeal of his conviction.

“This was a Kangaroo Court show that was worthy of an Oscar,” Shari Dovale wrote in a post on Montana Redoubt News. “It was an ambush from before it began.”

Dovale contended Department of Homeland Security officers were in a nearby building, recording protesters, and the “FBI made a huge presence for intimidation only.”

After years of warnings from the U.S. Forest Service and the Environmental Protection Agency about illegal, polluting ponds he built on federal lands near his home, a grand jury indicted Robertson in May 2015. A federal jury convicted him in April on two counts of unauthorized discharge of pollutants into U.S. waters and a third count of injury or depredation of federal property.

“He has caused major damage to public lands and waters which will have a significant cost and burden to the taxpayers to clean up,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Bryan Whitaker told the court in a sentencing memorandum. The federal prosecutor recommended a sentence of 46 to 57 months.

Robertson contended he constructed the ponds for his livestock and as reservoirs to fight wildfires. Federal agencies alleged –– and the jury agreed –– that his federal Clean Water Act offenses resulted in the ongoing and repetitive spread of pollutants into tributaries and wetlands.

But Robertson remained defiant. “Why do we get punished for protecting our community? How did all our laws get turned around like this?” he told U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy before being sentenced, the Missoulian reported.

Robertson’s public defender, Michael Donahoe, asked the judge to be lenient in sentencing the former Navy veteran who has been treated for post-traumatic stress.

“He’s just a man who is a property owner,” Donahoe said. “He just wants to enjoy his property in peace.”

Robertson has a “history and propensity for violence,” and made reference to another Ruby Ridge if federal agents attempted to intervene or remove ponds he constructed, the federal prosecutor told the court in a sentencing memorandum.

After his arrest, Robertson was ordered to remove more than 50 firearms he had in his residence.

“Robertson is wholly unwilling to conform his conduct to the rule of law,” the prosecutor told the court. “Instead, he simply ignores, makes excuses, and outright defies that law” in “a pattern of repeated defiance both toward the law and those who sustain and uphold the law.”

Robertson’s fight dates back at least ten years when he decided to block a U.S. Forest Service road. Several years later, Robertson again was cited and convicted for illegally constructing a pole barn on Forest Service land.

While he was free pending sentencing, Robertson drew support from antigovernment Patriots and militia groups, including Oath Keepers, the John Birch Society, the Coalition of Western States and others interested in this year’s armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon.

The Missoula newspaper reported that an estimated 50 protesters showed up outside the federal courthouse, including those supporting LaVoy Finicum, an Arizona rancher killed during the Malheur standoff.

Among the protesters were Steve and Donna Putnam, of Pasco, Wash., who said they previously attended several Oath Keeper rallies, including three in Portland, Ore., and others at the highway memorial near Burns, Ore., where Finicum was killed, the Missoulian reported.

“We’re just standing up for people’s rights,” Putnam told the newspaper, holding a flag with Finicum’s cattle brand. “(Robertson) should never have been brought to court.”

The Putnams discussed the unsuccessful attempt to recall Harney County, Ore., judge and county commissioner Steve Grasty, who had opposed the refuge occupation.

“Somebody should shoot that guy,” Donna Putnam said, the Missoula newspaper reported.

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