FBI agent pleads not guilty to lying about rancher shooting
PORTLAND — An FBI agent pleaded not guilty on Wednesday to charges that he lied about shooting at a key figure in last year's armed occupation of a national wildlife refuge just before the man was killed by Oregon police.
W. Joseph Astarita was indicted on five felony charges after the inspector general of the U.S. Justice Department last year began investigating possible FBI misconduct and whether there was a cover-up.
He said nothing during a brief court hearing and was released on his own recognizance, declining to comment as he left.
Robert "LaVoy" Finicum, a spokesman for the group that took over the remote bird sanctuary to oppose federal control of land in the Western U.S., was fatally shot Jan. 26, 2016. Oregon State Police opened fire after he got out of a vehicle at a police roadblock and reached toward a handgun in an inner jacket pocket.
Investigators determined the troopers were justified in shooting Finicum but also found members of an FBI hostage rescue team at the scene failed to disclose that they fired two rounds that missed the Arizona rancher.
"The actions of the FBI HRT team in this case damage the integrity of the entire law enforcement profession, which makes me both disappointed and angry," said Deschutes County Sheriff Shane Nelson, whose department investigated Finicum's shooting.
Oregon U.S. Attorney Billy Williams would neither confirm nor deny that up to four additional members of the FBI team are under investigation for making false statements.
Asked why Astarita may have lied, Williams said: "I suspect that question will be answered in court."
A grand jury indicted Astarita on making false statements to his FBI supervisors just after the shooting and obstruction of justice for misleading the Oregon State Police.
A one-week jury trial is set for Aug. 29. The obstruction charge carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison, while making a false statement could bring five years.
Finicum's widow, Jeanette Finicum, has said she plans to sue state police and the FBI, alleging the use of excessive force in her husband's death. Nobody answered a call to her number Wednesday, and her lawyer, Brian Claypool, did not return a message seeking comment.
Dozens of people, including leader Ammon Bundy, occupied the remote Malheur National Wildlife Refuge from Jan. 2 to Feb. 11, 2016. They were allowed to come and go for several weeks as authorities tried to avoid bloodshed seen in past standoffs at Waco, Texas, and Ruby Ridge, Idaho.
But authorities moved in Jan. 26 when key standoff leaders left for a community meeting, pulling over two vehicles and arresting the occupiers inside.
Finicum, 54, was driving one vehicle. Video taken by a passenger showed the occupants panicking after authorities stopped the truck.
With his window rolled down, Finicum shouted at officers: "Shoot me, just shoot me! Put the bullet through me."
Finicum then sped off, coming to a roadblock and plowing into a snowbank.
Authorities say the FBI agent fired two errant shots as Finicum left the truck. As Finicum stood in the snow, authorities told him to lie on the ground. Instead, he reached toward his jacket, and state troopers fired three rounds that hit him.
Williams, the U.S. attorney, said the shooting was necessary protect officer safety.
Most occupiers left the refuge after Finicum's death, though four holdouts stayed an additional 16 days.
Federal prosecutors tried to convict occupation leaders Ammon and Ryan Bundy and five others in a trial last fall but jurors acquitted them of charges of conspiring to impede federal workers from their jobs.
Several others pleaded guilty without going to trial or were convicted.
The Bundys and others are now facing conspiracy charges in Nevada over a 2014 armed standoff with federal agents.