Arizona ‘ground zero’ for extremist, anti-government sheriff movement
More than half of Arizona’s county sheriffs are at least partially aligned with a growing movement of so-called “constitutional sheriffs,” with an ideology that threatens to radicalize law enforcement by indoctrinating them with false legal theories about a sheriff’s authority over state and federal government, and a duty to nullify laws they interpret as unconstitutional. A shift toward amplifying misinformation about widespread voter fraud has experts sounding the alarm.
Susan Wortman, 79, recognized the voice of the man approaching her from behind as she attempted to slip out of the Pinal County Board of Supervisors meeting on Aug. 3.
Wearing a badge on his belt and gun on his hip, Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb’s tone was different from the warm greeting he’d given Wortman before the meeting. He was “acting like a bully,” she said. He didn’t seem happy about her public comments, and he certainly didn’t appreciate her attire.
Wortman had stepped up to the podium with her hair pushing out from under the wide brim of her late husband’s official sheriff posse hat, and the sleeves of his posse polo shirt stretching past her elbows. She spoke out against what she viewed as a sheriff who had become a threat to the community. She was among a half-dozen county residents that day who raised similar concerns about Lamb’s continued election fraud claims, fear-mongering and intimidation during public meetings.
“Mark Lamb, in my opinion, has politicized his job too far, and has been focused more about power issues,” she said to the public body. “He seems to be selective about which laws he’s enforcing.”
Lamb is on the frontline of what domestic extremism experts warn is a troubling marriage between anti-democratic extremist groups and county sheriffs throughout the nation. The so-called “constitutional sheriff” movement threatens to radicalize sheriffs by indoctrinating them with its false legal theories about the sheriffs’ unconstrained power and a duty to nullify laws they deem unconstitutional.
While the movement saw unprecedented traction during the pandemic as some sheriffs said they would not enforce COVID-19 restrictions, its recent shift into amplifying debunked claims of widespread election fraud has experts most concerned.
“It puts law enforcement in the crosshairs. It also puts their legitimacy in the crosshairs,” said Devin Burghart, president and executive director of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, an organization that tracks and counters racism, antisemitism, white supremacy and far-right movements.
“When you get ‘constitutional sheriffs’ who are picking and choosing what they’re going to enforce,” Burghart said, it means “their legitimacy and the Constitution itself is being shredded by their positions.”
Arizona, experts warn, is “ground zero” for the movement.
More than half of Arizona’s 15 county sheriffs have aligned themselves with at least some of the primary ideologies of the constitutional sheriffs, a months-long investigation by the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting found. Four have direct connections to Protect America Now or the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA)—both labeled as anti-government extremist organizations by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks domestic extremism. They are described as far-right nationalist and anti-democratic organizations by the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights.
AZCIR reviewed postings, comments and threads on social media platforms, public statements and documents, and conducted dozens of interviews to identify Arizona sheriffs who are either directly or ideologically affiliated with the movement. AZCIR then compared its findings with criteria established by national experts and researchers on domestic extremism to verify affiliations.
Arizona members of these groups hold powerful leadership positions in a variety of other law enforcement organizations, including the Arizona Sheriffs Association, Western States’ Sheriff Association and Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board, AZCIR found.
CSPOA was founded in 2011 by Richard Mack, a previous board member with the Oath Keepers, an anti-government militia group, and former Graham County, Arizona, sheriff. He has a well-documented history of sharing the stage with known white supremacists, antisemites and sovereign citizens. Mack continues to associate with the Oath Keepers, appearing at their events and providing a platform to founder Steward Rhodes—currently on trial for seditious conspiracy—despite saying he left the group about 7 years ago. He has also vehemently defended the reputation of CSPOA speaker Michael Peroutka, a former member of the neo-confederate, white nationalist group League of the South.
Protect America Now burst onto the scene in 2020 as Arizona and other states grappled with responses to the pandemic and some sheriffs, including Lamb, pushed back on public health mandates. Experts say the organization, conceptualized by Lamb but incorporated by long-time Republican strategist Nathan Sproul, is a repackaging of CSPOA ideology.
“It’s honed off the rough edges and could potentially have an appeal to a larger number of sheriffs and to the public,” Burghart said.
“That was our biggest concern, that in essence, it was mainstreaming the same ideas that CSPOA had but was doing so with much more conscious branding and public-facing appeal.”
Mack told AZCIR that there is nearly no ideological difference between the two organizations. He claimed that “most of the members” of Protect America Now had participated in CSPOA events.
Lamb—cowboy hat, gun and tactical vest included—is a regular on mainstream and fringe media outlets, discussing national-level issues from border policies and gun control to COVID-19 and elections.
“People deem me as political,” Lamb said, “I like to say that I’m just responding to issues that (the Biden administration) and other people are making political.”
Lamb has thrown his charismatic power behind other election deniers in the upcoming Arizona elections, including gubernatorial hopeful Kari Lake and secretary of state candidate Mark Finchem. Endorsed by former President Donald Trump, these candidates have said they would have done more to prevent Joe Biden from taking office. Both have shown support of debunked allegations of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election.
The growth of the constitutional sheriff movement is concerning, Burghart said, because it is turning these sheriffs into the “enforcement arm of the far right.”
“It’s also provided legitimacy to these rampant conspiracies around elections, around the pandemic, around many other other subjects,” he said.
‘Constitutional sheriffs’ embrace radical ideology
The constitutional sheriff movement has roots in the Posse Comitatus movement, led by political activist and white supremacist William Potter Gale during the 1970s and early 1980s. Gale, who believed “the county sheriff was the only legal law enforcement officer,” urged the creation of local posse groups throughout the country.
The organization gained its foothold by embracing Christian Identity beliefs, a racist, antisemitic theology, and merging it with the growing anti-tax movement in the United States at the time. It struggled with membership after Posse Comitatus leader Gordon Kahl killed two federal marshals in North Dakota in 1983.
Despite that violent history, the Posse Comitatus conviction that county sheriffs have supreme law enforcement authority lives on in the modern constitutional sheriff movement. And in practice, that belief doesn’t just involve enforcing laws the sheriffs feel are constitutionally sound—it also involves refusing to enforce laws and mandates they believe would, as Lamb put it, infringe on the “constitutional rights of the people.”
The strategy, known as nullification, has been employed by others in city, county and state government before, such as in so-called sanctuary cities that refuse to enforce federal immigration laws. But in the case of “constitutional sheriffs,” experts warn that attempts to nullify statutes and orders could heighten the risk of conflict between members of the movement and other authorities attempting to follow established law.
CSPOA has urged members to sign on to its “Stance of the Constitutional Sheriff,” a declaration encouraging the arrest of any government official a sheriff believes is enforcing or carrying out an unconstitutional mandate or regulation. As Mack told AZCIR: “We don’t believe that very much at all of the Constitution needs to be interpreted. It needs to be enforced.”
To Mack and Lamb, this approach is simply upholding “the rule of law.” To Stefanie Lindquist, a constitutional expert and executive director of the Center for Constitutional Design at Arizona State University, it’s a way to justify vigilantism.
“Under the governmental system that we have, (sheriffs) are not responsible for interpreting the Constitution. The courts are responsible for interpreting the Constitution,” she said, pointing to a 200-year-old ruling establishing the U.S. Supreme Court as the final arbiter of constitutional disputes.
“These are false legal arguments made and put forward based upon cherry-picking of little provisions of the Constitution,” she added. “This is very dangerous stuff.”
It can also be politically expedient—both at an individual level, as most county sheriffs are elected to their posts, and for the movement at large. As COVID-19 swept the nation, select sheriffs refused to enforce mask mandates and other pandemic-related orders issued by state and local leaders, garnering public support from people who felt the mandates were an overreach. In 2021, the year after the pandemic hit, Mack reported holding a record 70-plus CSPOA events around the nation.
Protect America Now currently lists 75 members, including seven in leadership positions, on its website, while Mack estimates CSPOA’s sheriff membership is about 250. Some sheriffs have embraced elements of the movement’s ideology without formally tying themselves to those organizations, according to Mark Pitcavage, an Anti-Defamation League senior research fellow who has tracked CSPOA since it was founded.
“There are a larger number of sheriffs who either, without joining the CSPOA or with joining it, but keeping any ties private, have embraced the general idea of the ‘constitutional sheriff,’” Pitcavage said. “They may be keeping a certain amount of distance from Richard Mack and CSPOA itself, but have nonetheless accepted his notions and promoted them themselves. And they are, in their own ways, just as problematic.”
In Arizona, AZCIR has identified the following sheriffs as being aligned in full or in part with the movement:
Where other sheriffs fall is less clear.
La Paz County Sheriff William Ponce is a member of Protect America Now, but AZCIR did not include him in the list of “constitutional sheriffs” because he has a strong stance against nullification: “I can’t make that determination not to enforce (a law),” he said in an interview. Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone, meanwhile, has publicly labeled himself a “constitutional sheriff” but his views don’t align with the movement.
Penzone was one of only two sheriffs in the state to openly criticize the movement, pointing out that, since every sheriff takes an oath of office based on the Constitution, the self-branding of “constitutional sheriffs” is an “exaggeration or embellishment, as though your efforts exceed those of others.” Pima County Sheriff Chris Nanos was the other, contending the groups had “hijacked law enforcement.”
“They did nothing but a political venture,” Nanos said. “They’ve lost their integrity.”
AZCIR was unable to confirm the stances of Coconino County Sheriff Jim Driscoll, Gila County Sheriff Adam Shepherd, Graham County Sheriff Preston “PJ” Allred and Navajo County Sheriff David Clouse based on social media posts and publicly available information. All either declined to be interviewed or did not respond to repeated attempts for comment.
Election focus garners deep pocketed allies for CSPOA, Protect America Now
Once constituents peek below the media-savvy, glossy veneer of the movement, there is something much more “dangerous,” said Rachel Goldwasser, a research analyst for the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“A lot of it is wrapped in sort of conspiracy theories that are destabilizing to democracy and to the safety and well-being of public officials,” Goldwasser said.
The constitutional sheriff movement has gained powerful, deep-pocketed allies with its shift toward amplifying debunked allegations of election fraud and proposing sheriffs as a solution to election security concerns, despite a robust system of election security protocols and professionals already in place. It found common ground with political activists such as Mike Lindell, who spent millions of dollars on lawsuits and other initiatives centered around election fraud, and others whose claims of election fraud helped fuel the leadup to the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Protect America Now and CSPOA this year aligned with True the Vote, a controversial Texas-based election-monitoring group. In addition to initiatives to place “poll watchers” at voting centers, True the Vote has long been connected with efforts to pass strict voter-ID laws and purge voter rolls. The organization continues to focus on purging voter rolls, while also being accused of fabricating claims of election fraud. It’s now facing a defamation lawsuit from election software company Konnech Inc., and Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich asked the federal government to investigate the group this month because it has failed to provide evidence to support its allegations of widespread voter fraud in 2020.
For Mary McCord, the executive director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University Law Center, who provided an expert witness statement about the sheriff movement to the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol, the recent collaboration with True the Vote has made the dangers posed by “constitutional sheriff” groups more acute.
She told AZCIR that CSPOA and Protect America Now are “pretty far along on the extremists spectrum,” warning that their base of sheriffs provide a “veneer of credibility.”
True the Vote gained new levels of national attention with its central role in Dinesh D’Souza’s movie “2,000 Mules,” which claims to show proof of widespread voter fraud. The claims have been largely discredited and none have been independently substantiated.
The efforts of True the Vote founder Catherine Engelbrecht caught the attention of Lamb prior to the movie’s release. Mack, the founder of CSPOA, said he was inspired to get involved after seeing it.
“Once we had been burned by both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and state-level law enforcement, we realized we’ve got to take this more local,” Engelbrecht said on a stage lined with sheriffs during a CSPOA press conference in Las Vegas in July. “As God would have it, at about the same time, both Sheriff Mark Lamb of Pinal County, Arizona, and Sheriff Mack reached out … All of a sudden, it’s like the lights went on—it’s the sheriffs, that’s who can do these investigations, that’s who we can trust.”
Engelbrecht is not the only one to have found the sheriffs.
The Claremont Institute, a conservative think tank home to the lawyer who designed a road map for the overturning of the 2020 election, has also taken interest in sheriffs. It created a sheriff fellowship in 2021 to offer “training of unparalleled depth and excellence in American political thought and institutions, from the country’s top constitutional experts and political theorists.”
Claremont Institute President Ryan Williams told AZCIR that the fellowship was an experiment because the institute hadn’t previously recruited law enforcement for its teaching programs.
“We see sheriffs, in many times, as a bulwark against government overreach,” Williams said. “In many ways a very localized line of defense against abuse.”
Lamb was one of eight fellows in the inaugural class. Others include California sheriff Chad Bianco, a former member of the CSPOA and Oath Keepers; Michigan sheriff Kim Cole, who has links to the CSPOA; Virginia sheriff Brian Hieatt with unknown ties to CSPOA or Protect America Now; Virginia sheriff Scott Jenkins, an advisory committee member for Protect America Now; Maryland sheriff Michael Lewis, a “constitutional sheriff” with unknown affiliations; Florida sheriff Eric Flowers, a member of the Protect America Now advisory committee; and Texas sheriff Bill Waybourn, who has known affiliations with CSPOA.
Williams said there was not a “a litmus test” for applicants being associated with the constitutional sheriff movement, but he was not surprised by the type of applicants they received because of the institute’s reputation as a “right-wing think tank.” The program had nine applicants the first year and 15 for the 2022 fellowship, Williams said. The newest fellows have yet to be announced.
Prior to developing the fellowship, The Claremont Institute teamed up with Texas Public Policy Foundation, another conservative think tank, to prepare their “79 Days to Inauguration” report, created as a “table-top exercise” with the goal of simulating election night 2020. As first reported by the right-leaning political news outlet The Bulwark, the report laid out a plan for how Trump supporters at all levels of government could install him for a second term.
One of the scenarios gamed out in the report reads like American Western fiction: “Riot control efforts continue throughout the country. There are rumors that several sheriffs in conservative counties throughout the country are hinting that they may deputize regular citizens into posses should the lawlessness come to their counties. Social media is ablaze with volunteers from Proud Boys, Three Percenters, and Oath Keepers and other Posse Comitatus groups to form posses.”
The scene described is a worst-case scenario for domestic extremist experts following the constitutional sheriff movement. Sheriff Rhodes told a crowd of Oath Keepers in September that he would only mass deputize folks in a “very extreme situation,” while Lamb has said that if the legislature passed gun laws, he would consider deputizing residents as a way to bypass restrictions.
Wortman, who said she respects the role of the sheriff’s posse in keeping the community safe, told AZCIR she feared Lamb’s support of what she called a “private militia.”
“The world is kind of crazy if you’re afraid of your own sheriff,” the 79-year-old Pinal County resident said.