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After Trump's pardon, Oregon ranchers catch a ride home on Pence ally's private jet

Matt Pearce, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES -- Earlier this week, ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond were prisoners at the minimum-security federal prison on Terminal Island in the Los Angeles Harbor area, serving five-year sentences for arson.

But on Wednesday, following a Tuesday pardon by President Donald Trump, the father-and-son pair got to fly home in style to Burns, Ore., on an oil company's private jet, riding alongside the company's founder, Forrest Lucas.

The Hammonds, who own a ranch in remote eastern Oregon, had been convicted of arson for setting fires that burned federally owned land. Their five-year mandatory minimum sentence drew criticism from ranchers groups who have been critical of the government's stewardship of the nation's expansive federal lands.

The Hammonds' case captured national attention after an armed group of anti-government activists protested their prison sentences by seizing the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for 41 days in 2016. Public-lands advocates have criticized Trump's pardon as a tacit approval of the occupation.

The Hammonds' ride home with Lucas -- whose company owns the naming rights to the Indianapolis Colts' NFL playing field, Lucas Oil Stadium -- illustrates the depth of the lobbying effort that helped secure clemency for the ranchers.

Lucas is a generous donor to Republican candidates, including to fellow Indiana native Vice President Mike Pence, who received at least $50,000 from Lucas and his wife when Pence was running for governor of Indiana.

Lucas also gave Pence two tickets worth $774 to attend a Colts game in 2017 that Pence abruptly left after players on the opposing team kneeled during the national anthem. Lucas was also rumored to be a top choice to become Interior secretary by Trump's transition team, which was led by Pence.

In the political world, Lucas is also known for his battles against animal-rights advocates, founding the Protect the Harvest activist group.

Protect the Harvest, like other ranching advocacy groups, lobbied public officials for the Hammonds' release.

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The Hammonds' advocates also reached out to Oregon's congressional delegation. They found little support among the state's elected Democrats but managed to secure help from the state's lone Republican congressman, Greg Walden, according to Lawrence Matasar, a Portland attorney who represented the Hammonds at trial and helped file the clemency petition.

"He was very helpful. He said he'd take a look," Matasar said. "What really happened? I don't know. It was a black box to me. From what I heard, Walden reached out to Pence."

Two weeks ago, Walden gave a speech on the House floor calling for Trump to pardon the ranchers, and on July 1, Walden wrote in a Facebook post that the president had called him to say he was "seriously considering" clemency.

Representatives for Walden, Lucas and Pence did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment. The Hammonds could not be reached for comment.

(c)2018 Los Angeles Times

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