The FBI agent charged Wednesday with lying about firing his gun during a deadly confrontation during the 2016 Oregon-Bundy standoff may be only the tip of the iceberg.
Deschutes County Sheriff Shane Nelson had harsh criticism Wednesday for multiple members of the FBI Hostage Rescue Team, saying that their actions during the 41-day siege with supporters of the anti-federal Bundy family had “damaged the integrity of the entire law enforcement profession, which makes me both disappointed and angry.”
His comments came during a press conference after FBI agent W. Joseph Astarita pleaded not guilty to three counts of making false statements and two counts of obstruction of justice in federal court in Portland.
But the sheriff didn’t stop with Mr. Astarita.
He said that he told Justice Department and FBI officials, including now-acting Director Andrew McCabe, over a year ago about “possible criminal conduct by some involved FBI HRT (Hostage Rescue Team) agents.”
“I was disappointed when I recently heard FBI HRT agents associated with this case were not placed on administrative leave after the briefing by our investigators to FBI administration,” said Sheriff Nelson. “Today’s indictment will ensure that the defendant and hopefully any other culpable FBI HRT members will be held accountable through the justice process.”
No FBI representatives were present as grim-faced state and federal officials discussed the actions of the FBI unit and the agency’s response.
Mr. Astarita is the only agent to be indicted in connection with the occupation of a vacant building at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by two dozen armed supporters of the Bundy family in a protest against federal lands policy.
He was accused of lying to investigators about firing his weapon twice after Robert “Lavoy” Finicum plowed his vehicle into a snowbank at an FBI roadblock.
“Specifically, Astarita falsely stated he had not fired his weapon during the attempted arrest of Mr. Finicum when he knew he had in fact fired his weapon,” said a statement by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Oregon.
“Astarita also knowingly engaged in misleading conduct toward Oregon State Police officers by failing to disclose that he had fired two rounds during the attempted arrest,” said the statement.
Mr. Finicum, 54, was shot and killed Jan. 26, 2016, by the Oregon State Police when he appeared to reach for his jacket, which held a handgun. He and others had taken over a vacant building at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in a protest against federal lands policy.
The shots fired by Mr. Astarita did not strike Mr. Finicum, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.
U.S. Attorney Billy J. Williams stressed that the indictment did not affect the outcome of the investigation led by the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office, which found that the shooting was justified.
The charges “do not in any way call into question the findings of the major incident team’s investigation of OSP’s use of deadly force,” said Mr. Williams. “OSP’s actions were justified and necessary in protecting officer safety.”
Outside the courthouse, Finicum family friend Kelli Stewart said the agent should have been charged with more serious offenses, including conspiracy and attempted murder.
“He and the other FBI agents literally conspired to impede a federal investigation,” said Ms. Stewart in a Facebook video. “They hid the fact that shots were fired, and here we waited 17 months just for a simple indictment to come down. So while we’re happy that something is happening, it feels a little like the people are being simply pacified.”
She noted that Mr. Astarita was released after the arraignment instead of being held in custody.
“If I fired a weapon at somebody else and lied about it and hid the evidence as he did, just even as a civilian, I’d be facing a lot of charges, and I’d be in handcuffs,” said Ms. Stewart, adding that “justice has not been served today.”
Sheriff Nelson thanked U.S. Inspector General Michael Horowitz and his team for “tirelessly searching for the facts in this case.”
“His office will also conduct thorough administrative review to identify any areas of improvement that will help eliminate any mistakes made by the FBI in the future and increase transparency for federal law enforcement,” said Sheriff Nelson.
The standoff was led by members of Nevada’s Bundy family, Ammon and Ryan Bundy, prominent critics of the federal government’s lands regulations.