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Democratic Challenger Says Walden Is Playing Politics With Hammonds Pardon Request

Democratic congressional candidate Jamie McLeod-Skinner says Republican Rep. Greg Walden is playing politics by urging President Donald Trump to pardon two Eastern Oregon ranchers serving prison terms for arson.

McLeod-Skinner said in an interview with OPB that instead of seeking “favoritism” for ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond, he should have long ago worked to change the 1996 law they violated that called for a minimum of a five-year prison term.

“If he doesn’t like the law, change the law,” McLeod-Skinner said. “That’s your job as a lawmaker … If this was such a monumental injustice, he should have done this a year and a half ago.”

Walden said in early 2016 that the five-year minimum should be changed and that the sentences meted out to the Hammonds were too harsh.

On June 5, the Washington Post reported that Trump was looking at pardoning the ranchers, and Walden followed with a June 26 speech on the House floor urging the president to act. The case of Dwight Hammond, 76, and his son Steven, 49 — both convicted of deliberately setting unauthorized rangeland fires — has loomed large in Eastern Oregon.

In 2016, it served as the impetus for the 41-day takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by brothers Ryan and Ammon Bundy.

The Bundys had been involved in an armed standoff against federal agents seeking to seize cattle from their father, Cliven Bundy, after he had refused for years to pay grazing fees.

The Hammonds distanced themselves from the Malheur occupation, but their own case has been controversial.

They were charged with setting a 2001 wildfire to cover up what witnesses said was evidence of illegal hunting, as well as several backfires in 2006 to protect a winter feed supply from an out-of-control wildfire. Federal officials said those unauthorized backfires endangered their own firefighters.

A federal judge overseeing the case ruled that the five-year minimum was too harsh, and the two served a combined total of about 18 months. But federal prosecutors successfully appealed, and the ranchers returned to prison on Jan. 4, 2016.

As the Hammonds prepared to go behind bars, the Bundys and their followers traveled to Harney County for a protest march and occupation of the refuge.

McLeod-Skinner said she also agrees the law calling for a five-year-minimum sentence is too harsh.

She said the ranchers may well deserve a shorter sentence but argued they could apply for that as part of a change in law.

A pardon, she said, does not “establish a level playing field for all of us.” And she called the inability to change the law “another failure of leadership on Walden’s part.”

Walden didn’t talk about changing the law in his latest speech on the House floor.

He said the two have “served long enough” and that is was “time for real justice, and President Trump can administer that.”

Copyright 2018 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Jeff Mapes is a senior political reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Previously, Jeff covered state and national politics for The Oregonian for nearly 32 years. He has covered numerous presidential, congressional, gubernatorial and ballot measure campaigns, as well as many sessions of the Legislature, stretching back to 1985. Jeff graduated from San Jose State University with a B.A. in journalism.