A sheriff, a felon and a conspiracy theorist walk into a hotel. They’re there for the same conference.

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By:   NBC News

A sheriff, a felon and a conspiracy theorist walk into a hotel. They’re there for the same conference.
The Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association conference in Las Vegas drew felons, disgraced politicians, election deniers and conspiracy theorists.

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S E E D E D   C O N T E N T

April 18, 2024, 11:37 PM UTCBy Brandy Zadrozny

LAS VEGAS — A conference for a far-right sheriffs group this week drew a parade of felons, disgraced politicians, election deniers, conspiracy theorists and, in the end, a few sheriffs.

The Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, or CSPOA, met in Las Vegas' Ahern Luxury Boutique Hotel conference center to publicly counter reports of extremism within the group and set a course for the coming election — one that involves sheriffs' investigating what they claim, despite a lack of evidence, is rampant voter fraud.

The group sees sheriffs as the highest authority in the U.S., more powerful than the federal government, and it wants these county officers to form posses to patrol polling places, seize voting machines and investigate the Democrats and foreign nations behind what they claim is a criminal effort to rig the vote by flooding the country with immigrants who vote illegally.

Critics of the group — including voting rights advocates and extremism researchers — fear the CSPOA's new focus will amount to interference and legitimize disinformation about U.S. elections.

But the event Wednesday, which starred MAGA celebrities speaking to a half-empty audience made up of few actual sheriffs, pointed to just how fringe the group's ideas are — and how what once seemed like a movement on its way into the mainstream has lost political pull.

The conference opened a little behind schedule; the Pledge of Allegiance was delayed when organizers couldn't find a flag. After he searched the conference center's rooms, Tom Hamner, a Colorado man who served over two years in prison for the felony "interfering with law enforcement" on Jan. 6, 2021, came forward with the scarf from his wife's neck. It wasn't exactly a flag, but it was emblazoned with stars and stripes.

"That'll work!" emcee Alex Newman, an Epoch Times contributor, said before he led the crowd of dozens in the pledge. A smooth jazz rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" followed, sung by a Las Vegas man awaiting trial on multiple felony charges who is accused of fraudulently posing as a certified firearms instructor.

I sat with a small group of reporters at a table marked "reserved," a section Newman and other presenters pointed to throughout the day when they invoked, in Donald Trump's style, the "fake media."

We, along with candidates and elected officials, were admitted gratis. Others paid $49 for the day, which included breakfast, a box lunch and a "pizza party." Sponsors staffed booths advertising unofficial Trump merchandise, supplements, prepper gear and various patriot-themed swag.

CSPOA's finances aren't public. It charges for events like this conference, offers a $99 yearly subscription for access to weekly webinars and solicits donations. It has also provided training sessions in nearly a dozen states, where police and sheriffs earn continuing education credits toward professional requirements. Last year, the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement ended the practice in the state.

To the extent that the 13-hour day was structured, it was broken roughly in two: the first half dedicated to the issue of encroaching federal power and the second to election denial and conspiracy theories.

The morning's sessions were the group's bread and butter. Former Arizona sheriff Richard Mack founded the CSPOA in 2011 to advocate for the belief that sheriffs — who generally operate independently with little to no oversight and are accountable only to voters — are the ultimate arbiters and enforcers of the Constitution and must act as a check on tyrannical federal power.

Its early focus was on gun laws and other tea party pet causes, including immigration, the Affordable Care Act and attention-grabbing standoffs between ranchers and the Bureau of Land Management. "The greatest threat we face today is not terrorists," Mack's website read in 2012. "It is our own federal government."

After two terms as sheriff in an Arizona border county, Mack lost re-election. He sought elected office multiple times but failed in bids for sheriff of a different county, governor and seats in the U.S. House and Senate.

There are no public rolls today, but Mack claims 10% of the country's 3,000 sheriffs are members, along with 10,000 ordinary citizens.

Wednesday's event drew a little over 100 people by midmorning. Attendees took notes, nodded along and offered somber "Amens" and boisterous "Nos!" when called for.

Jared Bosley, a farmer in South Dakota, told of his fight with the state over a pipeline company surveying his land without his permission. Two convicted Jan. 6 rioters said they were "political prisoners." Former Rep. Steve King of Iowa, his legacy a history of racist remarks, railed against the World Health Organization, the World Economic Forum and "ringleader" George Soros. Another disgraced former congressman, Steve Stockman of Texas, sobbed as he shared his story of serving time in a federal prison for fraud and sobbed again when he got to the part where Trump commuted his 10-year sentence.

The supportive crowd felt like "a warm bath," Stockman said, his arms stretched toward heaven.

Richard Fleming, a cardiologist who in 2009 pleaded guilty to felony charges of health care and mail fraud, gave a lengthy presentation alleging the Covid vaccines were bioweapons. Radio show host Wayne Allyn Root thundered into the microphone promoting the "great replacement," a racist conspiracy theory. "They want to replace American citizens who love this country," Root bellowed.

It was nearly lunchtime when the first active sheriff spoke. Bob Songer, a CSPOA board member and the sheriff of Klickitat County, Washington, said he enforces only laws he determines to be constitutional and talked about his "posse," a group of 150 armed community volunteers he relies on for tasks like hunting cougars and courtroom security and keeps at the ready, as a potential militia. He offered a copy of his posse plan to sheriffs in the audience.

During the break, as CSPOA volunteer Kenneth Hall sang an original song, "I Back the Sheriff," to the music of the Bob Marley tune, I asked Mack why there weren't more sheriffs at his conference. Mack said that didn't matter.

"There's several candidates," Mack said, noting the political signs littering the room. He said he hoped to draw a "new generation" of sheriffs, but, pointing to 78-year-old Songer, he added, "there's one, and he's one of the best sheriffs in America!"

Indeed, there are politicians — or would-bes — who see the constitutional sheriffs group as an important bloc of support. Twenty or so candidates for local office in the crowd from Nevada, Utah, Texas, Arizona, Oklahoma, Georgia and Idaho spent the morning shaking hands and passing out cards.

It's a model that has proven effective. Trump depended on support from sheriffs in the White House and continues to rely on them at campaign events, as he did in 2016 and 2020. At a presentation in Grand Rapids, Michigan, this month, a half-dozen uniformed sheriffs stood in the background decked out in gold stripes and braided ropes as Trump railed against immigration and stood before a sign that read "Stop Biden's Border Bloodbath."

After lunch, former sheriff Glenn Hamilton, who lost his 2022 re-election bid in Sierra County, New Mexico, regaled the audience with the time he deputized an entire church congregation to permit a gathering in violation of the governor's Covid rules. Hamilton referred to "this old tool that's in our box called Posse Comitatus. Who's ever heard of this?" he asked.

The Posse Comitatus movement in the 1970s and '80s held up the county sheriff as the only true law enforcement officer and urged vigilantism through local posse groups. Latin for "power of the county," Posse Comitatus was preached and popularized by white supremacist William Potter Gale, but it dissolved in the wake of a spate of violence and highly publicized prosecutions.

The CSPOA has recently sought to distance itself from that history, the kind of messaging that may have resonated with not only tea partiers but also anti-government groups and militias and caused national hate tracking groups and Mack's Republican political opponents to label him a far-right extremist.

Mack and CSPOA leaders have consistently decried the label, but their ties with extremist organizations are well-documented. Mack was a keynote speaker at the first national conference for the far-right Oath Keepers in 2009 and sat on the militia group's board until at least 2015. The CSPOA's current CEO since 2022, Sam Bushman, operates Liberty News Radio, which has syndicated programs hosted by white supremacists. Bushman has hosted Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes on his show, "Liberty RoundTable," over a dozen times, including after the attack on the Capitol, for which Rhodes is serving an 18-year sentence for seditious conspiracy.

A frustrated and defiant Bushman said it was that kind of negative publicity that had most likely caused the conference's biggest speaker, former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, to bail. Without notice, Bannon hadn't shown up, he said. Bannon didn't respond to a request for comment.

With Bannon out, the biggest star was Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser and retired three-star general who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI but was pardoned by Trump. After he promoted a new film about himself that would be released the next day, Flynn took photos with attendees near the stage. Seeing an NBC News photographer, Flynn demanded to know whom he worked for, and when he identified himself, Flynn became incensed and yelled, "You're a liar!" The organizers then moved Flynn to a room walled off by curtains and two guards.

The CSPOA has always been considered a fringe movement, but the pandemic offered a boost. Constitutional sheriffs were suddenly a viable solution to what a growing slice of the GOP saw as tyrannical lockdown orders, mask requirements and vaccination mandates. Similar constitutional sheriffs organizations began to pop up, including Pinal County, Arizona, Sheriff Mark Lamb's Protect America Now and a pro-Trump think tank, the Claremont Institute's Sheriffs Fellowship.

The 2020 election offered another opportunity. Pushing unfounded claims of a stolen election, the CSPOA collaborated with True the Vote, the Texas-based election conspiracy theorist group behind "2000 Mules," a widely panned and debunked film that claimed to reveal widespread ballot drop-box fraud.

Mack called the film a "smoking gun," and at its 2022 conference, the CSPOA called upon its members to launch investigations. But results have been lackluster.

The most notable investigation came from Barry County, Michigan, Sheriff Dar Leaf, who partnered with a pro-Trump lawyer bent on overturning Michigan's election results. Leaf's investigation, which has involved seizing election equipment and grilling local clerks, has seemingly only impeded a criminal case against three Trump supporters indicted last year on state charges related to their alleged tampering with voting machines. Leaf hasn't been charged with a crime.

Onstage, Leaf, bespectacled and boyish, was giddy. The investigation had faced setbacks, he acknowledged, but he believed there would soon be justice.

"I'm getting goose-bumpy here," Leaf said. Later, he told me he didn't pay any attention to the criticism from state election and law enforcement officials or from the media: "I just keep my head down."

As the day wore on at the conference, the rails began to wear.

Tina Peters, a former Mesa County, Colorado, clerk facing multiple criminal charges related to a suspected security breach of her county's election system in 2021, and fresh off a home confinement for obstructing government administration in a separate case, took the stage wearing a large white lei. She is fighting the latest charges, with a trial scheduled for this summer. She had recently been to Hawaii, she said, and she offered a slideshow of photographic evidence that she suggested proved the recent deadly wildfires were the result of an intentional laser attack.

As Mike Lindell, MyPillow's founder and a sponsor of the CSPOA event, spoke — election denial and his prowess with the media and in business were his main topics — a blond woman in a robin's egg suit jacket walked up behind me and handed me a note: "I would like to give you some first hand info that will be helpful to you reaching a conclusion on election fraud in NV." The note passer, Susan Proffitt, later told me that the room was full of operatives, "and they are doing their best to destroy us."

Pizza was put out on long tables under heat lamps. The audience, halved from the morning, milled about. A couple of women took off their high heels. Several small groups were forming around the bar. There was still an awards ceremony, and Mack and Bushman had planned a news conference, though by the time it started the members of the media had gone.

As I left, I checked in with a man who had been sitting in the back, watching attentively. Jeffrey Kadlowec, a local architect, hadn't heard of CSPOA before and wasn't sure what to expect. "I thought it would be more about law enforcement," he said excitedly. "I didn't expect it to be so, so radical."

Brandy Zadrozny

Brandy Zadrozny is a senior reporter for NBC News. She covers misinformation, extremism and the internet.

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Professor Principal
1  seeder  JohnRussell    one month ago
"I thought it would be more about law enforcement," he said excitedly. "I didn't expect it to be so, so radical."
Professor Principal
2  Gsquared    one month ago

It sounds like a real horror show.

Brandy Zadrozny is an excellent reporter.  


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