Riverside County sheriff was once a member of an extremist group with ties to the Jan. 6 insurrection
Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco was a paying member in 2014 of the Oath Keepers, a far-right, anti-government group whose ranks participated in the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, prompting some local leaders to call for his resignation.
Bianco acknowledged his former membership — but did not denounce the group — after the information came to light through a data leak.
“Like many other law enforcement officers and veterans who were members, I learned the group did not offer me anything and so I did not continue membership,” Bianco said in a statement Wednesday.
Bianco, elected sheriff in 2018, said that he has not been a member of the group since 2014.
The whistleblower group Distributed Denial of Secrets in late September made available roughly 5 gigabytes of emails, chat logs, members and donor lists and other files from the servers of the Oath Keepers.
J.J. MacNab, a fellow with George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, posted Monday on Twitter that the leak revealed Bianco was once a dues-paying member.
MacNab said Wednesday she specifically looked for Bianco’s name amid tens of thousands of people on the list in part because of a statement he made on his podcast, “RSO Roundup,” describing himself as “the last line of defense from tyrannical government overreach.”
“That’s just a big red flag for the people I monitor,” she said. His stance on vaccines also caught her attention.
Last month, Bianco announced he would not enforce a vaccine mandate for the department, invoking the notion of overreach. The sheriff said, “I am certainly not anti-vaccine; I am anti-vaccine for me,” the Desert Sun reported.
Bianco was an outspoken critic of coronavirus restrictions, even as cases within Riverside County soared. He vowed not to enforce a state stay-at-home order last winter, calling the rule “flat-out ridiculous.”
According to Sheriff Chad Bianco, “The government has no ability and no authority to mandate your health choices.”
The Oath Keepers were founded in 2009 by U.S. Army veteran and Yale Law School graduate Stewart Rhodes as an organization composed of members who agreed to take up arms against any government that tried to pass gun control legislation, MacNab said.
There’s a focus on recruiting current or former military and law enforcement personnel. Those who join must swear an oath to support and defend the Constitution as they understand it — even if the interpretation goes against the law.
MacNab said it entails refusing to enforce certain laws, “which is problematic if you’re law enforcement.”
Bianco, in his statement, said, “My oath is to the Constitution and laws of the land and to the people of Riverside County, who I am sworn to protect.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center has designated the Oath Keepers an extremist group grounded in “baseless conspiracy theories about the federal government working to destroy Americans’ liberties.”
The Washington Post reported last month that about 22 associates of the group were charged in connection with the Jan. 6 breach of the U.S. Capitol, and five have pleaded guilty.
Palm Springs Mayor Christy Holstege on Tuesday publicly called for Bianco’s resignation due to his connection with the group, deeming it “offensive to all those who believe in American democracy. "
Given the core tenets of the group, Holstege said Wednesday, Bianco was leading based on his own understanding of the Constitution rather than upholding the laws of Riverside County.
“His refusal to enforce laws, and to show the public that he can pick and choose which to enforce, is incredibly problematic for our community,” she said.
Though Palm Springs doesn’t contract with the Sheriff’s Department for law enforcement services, she said contradictory information disseminated by Bianco has sown confusion within the city, prompting residents to call and send emails.
“It’s caused us to do a lot more work educating the public,” she said. To clarify rules around COVID-19, the city has put out public service announcements and dispatched police officers to enforce local guidelines, among other things.
Megan Beaman Jacinto, councilwoman for the city of Coachella — which contracts with the Sheriff’s Department — said she also wants to see Bianco step down.
Besides Bianco’s flagrant dismissal of coronavirus precautions, Jacinto, who is also a civil rights attorney, called his leadership style “abusive,” particularly to communities of color.
“Seeing the way that Bianco has led his department in response to the pandemic, and also in response to civil rights organizing, has really conflicted with our values,” Jacinto said, pointing to his enforcement of a curfew during protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.
The Oath Keepers group saw significant growth in 2014, the year in which Bianco joined, MacNab said.
That’s the year that Cliven Bundy, his family and supporters — including those connected to the Oath Keepers — engaged in an armed standoff with federal agents in Bunkerville, Nev., in a dispute over grazing fees for cattle.
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