SALT LAKE CITY — A U.S. Senate subcommittee on public lands chaired by Utah Sen. Mike Lee probed the extent and appropriateness of law enforcement authority by federal land agencies, pointing to the Blanding artifacts raid that critics say was "overkill."
The 2009 raid in southeast Utah was the largest undercover sting of its kind in the country. It included more than a dozen raids and multiple arrests. A prominent doctor in the community, James Redd, committed suicide after being swept up in the probe of theft involving Native American artifacts.
The Republican lawmaker on Wednesday termed it "years of cloak-and-dagger investigations" that culminated in pre-dawn raids by federal police in a residential neighborhood on private land.
"Law enforcement has become a growth industry within these federal agencies and the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service have followed these trends," Lee said. "Undeniably, our federal land management agencies have drifted far from their stated purpose."
Lee added that he seeks a permanent legislative solution to implement reforms in law enforcement in those agencies.
Jackson Brossy, director of the Navajo Nation's Washington, D.C., office, stressed that Native Americans depend on federal law enforcement to safeguard their cultural heritage and if anything, personnel dedicated to that cause need to be drastically increased.
"We have a significant interest in how those lands are managed," he said. "Tribal artifacts have been looted in southern Utah for decades."
The 2009 raid, he added, did little to stem the ongoing abuses suffered from looting and "blatant" grave robbing.
From 2011-15, there were 26 incidents of cultural resource damage in San Juan County — and one BLM law enforcement representative, he said.
Brossy said in 2012, campers tore down a 19th century Navajo hogan and used it for firewood. A year later, looters desecrated a burial site at Butler Wash, he said.
"It is unacceptable that in 2018 that federal laws continue to be broken with such disregard and at such a high rate," Brossy said.
Brian Steed, the BLM's deputy director for policy and programs, acknowledged there had been specific problems with law enforcement abuses.
"While the BLM rangers have accomplished important work, the law enforcement program itself has experienced a number of challenges in the recent past, including destruction of records, mishandling of evidence, misappropriation of government funds, among others," he said. "This behavior shocks the conscience and is entirely unacceptable."
The man who was the agent in charge of Utah and Nevada, Dan Love, was caught up in multiple scandals, including distributing evidence in a criminal case to his colleagues and using his position to get special treatment at the Burning Man festival.
A probe by the Inspector General's Office also noted the agent was involved in threats and intimidation of colleagues uncomfortable with his behavior.
Steed, a Utahn and former chief of staff to Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, said the BLM is seriously considering moving its law enforcement headquarters to the West — where so much of its land exists.
"We've also reinforced the need for accountability in our law enforcement program," he said.
Utah state Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, said the raid should have never have happened.
"They could have been given a citation to appear in federal court and they would have appeared in federal court. It was overkill."
Both Steed and Tracy Perry, director of law enforcement and investigations for the U.S. Forest Service, said they are working on improving relationships with local and state law enforcement agencies.
Beyond relationships, though, critics say law enforcement arms of federal land management agencies are often overzealous.
"Based on what I have read, it seems to me the tragedy that occurred there (Blanding) had at least three causes," said Paul Larkin Jr., senior legal research fellow with the Heritage Foundation and a former federal agent
"One was the mistaken decision by a BLM special agent to treat Dr. James Redd as if he were Pablo Escobar (a Colombian drug lord and narcoterrorist) and to conduct an assault and takeover of the Redds' home as if they were members of a biker gang cooking meth."
Larkin said Blanding is a result of the over-criminalization of the federal code.
"There are seriously bad people out there," he said. "We don't need to manufacture them."
Much of the discussion Wednesday centered on boosting relationships among federal land management agencies and local police, as well as training requirements among the agencies and how they might differ.