Former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders met with an activist group Thursday that was co-founded by a prominent anti-pipeline activist and convicted rapist.
The Vermont senator was photographed standing alongside members of Society of Native Nations (SNN), an activist group working to defeat a highly contentious natural gas pipeline in Texas. One of the group’s former members spent nearly 10 years in prison for forcible rape and was arrested last week after breaking parole in California.
Law enforcement officials in Texas arrested, and fingerprinted Pedro Rabago Gutierrez, who was jailed in 1984 on rape charges and would later go on to flee California and wind up in Texas, where he changed his name to “Peter Hefflin” and became a leading figure in the anti-pipeline movement.
Gutierrez served on the SNS’ board of directors and was a leading opponent of the Trans-Pecos pipeline, a 148-mile natural gas project connecting the Big Bend region in Texas to Mexico. Activists are trying to turn the project into the next Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).
Sanders, a long-time environmentalist opposed to all forms of fossil fuel production, blasted former President Barack Obama in October for not rejecting outright the DAPL.
“I urge you to take all appropriate measures to protect the safety of the Native Americans protesters and their supporters who have gathered peacefully to oppose the construction of the pipeline,” the self-proclaimed socialist wrote in a letter to Obama.
Obama eventually directed the Army Corps of Engineers to reject the 1,172-mile-long pipeline in December after deciding that more tests needed to be conducted. Environmentalists and members of Standing Rock Sioux believed DAPL’s construction would trample tribal artifacts and poison the tribe’s water supply.
The push was all for naught, as President Donald Trump approved in January construction on the pipeline’s remaining section.
The Vermont Democrat staked out a fervently anti-oil position during his presidential campaign. Sanders suggested in an op-ed in April, 2016 banning natural gas production on the national level — if not banned, then phased out to “save our planet,” he wrote.
Fracking is “a danger to the air we breathe. It has resulted in more earthquakes. It’s highly explosive. And it’s contributing to climate change,” Sanders wrote, referencing Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) studies that show fracking hurts water supplies.
But Sanders’s photo-op with SNS could hurt his image among a wider audience.
SNN, among other Environmentalist groups, did their level-best to distance themselves from Gutierrez’s criminal past.
“He was part of our circle. He was part of our family,” Frankie Orona, the group’s executive director told reporters shortly after Gutierrez’s arrest. “But then again, we’ve always been about holding people accountable, and in this situation, he was definitely wrong. I am upset with him.”
Other activist groups defended Gutierrez, despite his efforts to hide his real identity from his fellow environmentalists and the media.
Lori Glover, co-founder of Defend Big Bend, told reporters that Gutierrez had already served his sentence in a cruel penal justice system. He helped found Glover’s group.
“He served his time, made a new start,” she said “I was unaware of any of this history. Despite that, I feel very privileged to have worked with Pete Hefflin.”
Sanders’s office did not respond to The Daily Caller News Foundation’s request in time for the publication of this article.
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