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Judge: Reporter won’t have to testify at Oregon refuge trial

February 24, 2017

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — A former Oregon Public Broadcasting reporter won’t have to testify at the ongoing conspiracy trial of four men who joined Ammon and Ryan Bundy at last winter’s armed occupation of a national wildlife refuge, a federal judge ruled Friday.

Asserting journalist’s privilege, Oregon Public Broadcasting and reporter John Sepulvado fought a government subpoena to testify about whether his January 2016 story about occupation leader Ryan Bundy was authentic and accurately depicted Bundy’s point of view. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions approved the subpoena shortly after his confirmation.

Defense lawyers contend Bundy’s statements to Sepulvado shouldn’t be admitted as evidence because it’s unknown what questions were asked and what responses were omitted during the editing process.

Defense attorney Jesse Merrithew told the judge at a Friday afternoon hearing that the reporter described the men as thugs and terrorists in public Twitter posts, and expressed disappointment that the Bundy brothers were acquitted in a trial last fall. “This is a person who doesn’t make any qualms about his bias against these men,” Merrithew said.

U.S. District Judge Anna Brown said it would be impossible to question Sepulvado about the accuracy of his story without getting into his editorial process. She granted Oregon Public Broadcasting’s motion to quash the subpoena.

The judge, however, has yet to decide whether the radio story can be admitted as evidence. Brown could allow jurors to hear it without authentication. She and an attorney for Oregon Public Broadcasting also raised the possibility that Ryan Bundy could testify about its authenticity and whether the reporter fairly depicted his position.

The four defendants are charged with conspiracy to impede federal employees from doing their jobs at the wildlife refuge through the use of force, threats or intimidation.

Defense lawyers both trials contend the occupation was a mostly spontaneous protest against the federal control of Western lands and the imprisonment of two ranchers convicted of setting fires on public rangeland. They say there was no conspiracy to impede workers.

In the interview with Sepulvado, shortly after the takeover, Ryan Bundy said many ranchers lost their land to make way for the refuge, and he blamed the refuge for the charges that put the ranchers in prison.

He said the tyranny is “being facilitated from this office. So by being here, it puts a stop to that.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Barrow told the judge that Bundy’s statement goes directly to the point of the case — that the men wanted to thwart federal workers. “There is no piece of evidence in this case that is more relevant,” he said.

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Follow Steven DuBois at twitter.com/pdxdub

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