Are BLM ‘police’ acting legally in Nevada?

ELKO — A Bureau of Land Management law enforcement officer, accused of erroneously ticketing a local for cutting wood, isn’t allowed to tell his side until the agency completes an internal investigation.

Resident Brad Nelson said he and two friends were cited by Ranger Brad Sones near Spruce Mountain for cutting wood in a wilderness study area. They each received a ticket for about $275. Nelson addressed the county commission Wednesday, which has discussed BLM law enforcement issues before.

But BLM representatives felt blindsided by the complaint.

BLM Elko District Manager Jill Silvey said she called Commissioner Grant Gerber prior to the meeting to prepare for it. She said she was told it would be a follow-up to a discussion that occurred in January, in which the commission talked about the inconvenience of driving to Reno to fight a ticket issued by a federal employee.

“I came prepared to discuss that. I did not come prepared to discuss anything else,” she said.

Gerber said he told Silvey some dissatisfied residents might be in attendance but he wasn’t authorized to say who at that time.

Nelson came prepared with evidence, including the GPS coordinates where he received the ticket and two recorded phone messages left on his friend’s voice mail from Sones.

In one message, a voice identified as Sones said the court date had been changed.

Nelson said he thought it odd the officer who issued the ticket would be responsible to call about a change of date, and he decided to double check with the court. According to Nelson, the court date hadn’t been changed.

As the trial date approached, Nelson and his friends received another phone message from Sones, which he also shared for the commission. In it, Sones said the case was dismissed and Nelson could toss out the citation.

Nelson called the court again to find out that the trial hadn’t been canceled, he said, although he added that two or three days later, he received a letter confirming the charges were dismissed.

Even though the charge was resolved, Nelson said he felt compelled to tell the commission because he viewed the incident as a slippery slope toward an abuse of authority.

“If it happens once, it’s going to happen again,” Nelson said. “The more power you give somebody, the more they’re going to push.”

Nelson described the BLM law enforcement agent as stiff and humorless — and whose hand never left a holstered gun.

Sones wrote each man a ticket for chopping wood in a wilderness study area. Nelson was confident he and his friends weren’t in a WSA and later checked a map. By his estimation, he was at least six miles away from the study area.

“As he wrote us our tickets he pretty much told us that ‘There’d be no point in fighting this. You’re fighting the federal government. You will not win,’” Nelson said.

Sones was in attendance, as were a number of other BLM employees. The Commission asked Sones to approach the board, but he was quickly intercepted by Daniel Love, BLM special agent-in-charge for Utah and Nevada.

Love said he wasn’t aware of Nelson’s complaint and said the agency wanted to review the issue internally before Sones engaged with the county commission. Later, Silvey also told the commission she wasn’t going to allow Sones to address the complaint at that time.

Love said once the internal investigation was completed, he would bring it back to the board if members wanted him to.

“I don’t know if a county commission meeting is the appropriate venue to go back and forth,” Love said. “… I just don’t want to get in the habit that we find ourselves in the county commission meeting where we’re not having that internal process first, to review them and study them.”

Commissioner Glen Guttry agreed, saying the commission wasn’t a court.

Commissioner Demar Dahl disagreed that Sones should remain silent.

“Obviously we’re not a court, but we do have the responsibility to protect the interest of the citizens of Elko County,” he said. “… If they were abused by you or your agency or whatever, then I think it’s perfectly legitimate that they should come here to express that concern. And, I think it’s also perfectly legitimate that we should hear from the one who issued the citation and find out if what we heard first from the citizen is the truth. If that can be refuted, this is the opportunity to do that.”

Sones did end up at the lectern, however, to address a resident who later questioned how he was supposed to know where wood cutting was permitted, generally. The commissioners pounced on the opportunity to ask Sones about the citation he wrote.

Before BLM officers tapped Sones on the back, he did say that he wrote the citation, but declined to comment on whether he left voice messages on anyone’s phone.

Love said residents can call or email the BLM state chief ranger to file complaints. He encouraged residents to contact Silvey with complaints, as well.

Commissioners were leery of reporting allegations of misconduct about the BLM to the BLM, although Kristin McQueary, legal counsel for the county and chief civil deputy D.A., said the county sheriff’s office has the same policy.

“They can’t fix problems that they don’t know about,” she said.

The commission also found itself in the hot seat.

Lori Gilbert, local TV and radio news director, called out Gerber for not disclosing that he had prepared to be legal counsel for Nelson. Gerber, who hadn’t mentioned his connection to Nelson up to that point, said he received a call and offered to look at their complaint for free. Gerber decided the three men had a case and agreed to represent them in court.

Gilbert asked Gerber if he was acting as a private attorney or public office holder when he agreed to represent Nelson and when he brought the agenda item to the commission.

Gerber said he didn’t have a conflict of interest. McQueary, who often scolds commissioners who don’t disclose conflicts of interest prior to meetings, said nothing.

Gilbert, who chastised the board a few months ago for writing vague agenda items, said on Wednesday that commissioners left out pertinent information from being included on the agenda again.

Gerber said he believed the agenda item didn’t violate the open meeting law and suggested Gilbert file a formal complaint if she disagreed.

“Obviously you had information and you withheld it from the agenda, Commissioner Gerber,” she said.

The agenda item did not mention Nelson or specific complaints against the BLM officer.

In full, the agenda item states:

“Discussion and consideration of issues related to law enforcement activities by BLM Law Enforcement Officers (LEOs) in Elko County. Discussion may include concern regarding BLM enforcement of Nevada State Law that would require a ticketed person to go to Federal Court in Reno or Las Vegas instead of a local Court.”

Silvey said the BLM has been in talks with the sheriff’s office to reach an agreement where a BLM officer would be deputized to partially enforce state law to save a cited resident a trip to federal court.

Commissioner Charlie Myers and Dahl both stated they would not support deputizing a BLM officer.

Sheriff Jim Pitts said he was not aware of any citation issues. Pitts encouraged residents to contact his office with law enforcement complaints in Elko County, including those related to federal agents.

Reprinted by permission.