The Arizona-based Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, a group described as anti-democratic by domestic extremism researchers, is elevating some of its most controversial members—including those with direct ties to other anti-government and white nationalism movements—into formal leadership positions.
The CSPOA promoted long-time staffer and self-described “constitutional scholar” Sam Bushman to CEO while also adding members of its more radical arm to a newly created advisory board, cementing both their positions and their perspectives into efforts to expand its ideology and influence across the U.S.
The group will maintain its focus on recruiting and training law enforcement, but also plans to increase online resources to better reach the general public, including local elected officials, as it builds on momentum it gained during the pandemic.
“It is basically a hate group as far as I’m concerned, and why would law enforcement ever want to consider themselves (part of it)?” asked Pima County Sheriff Chris Nanos, a Democrat and outspoken critic of the far-right sheriff movement that includes CSPOA. “We have a lot of sheriffs in this state that need to rethink their positions, I think, in terms of ideologues.”
The so-called “constitutional sheriff” organization, which has consistently pushed back on allegations of having racist ties, is best known for its controversial legal theories about a sheriff’s power to override the authority of state and federal government, including a duty to nullify laws they interpret as unconstitutional.
The group experienced a resurgence of interest in recent years after thrusting itself into the anti-vaccination and election-denial movements, ultimately presenting the sheriff as a solution. It encouraged sheriffs to refuse to enforce COVID-19 mask mandates and rallied public support for sheriffs to investigate debunked claims of widespread voter fraud.
Bushman, who was CSPOA national operations director prior to his promotion, has so far largely escaped public scrutiny. He hosts the online talk show Liberty Roundtable, a Utah-based program that regularly espouses anti-LGBTQ content and syndicates the white nationalist show “Political Cesspool,” in addition to other programming that promotes “God, Family, and Country.”
CSPOA founder and former Graham County Sheriff Richard Mack officially stepped back from managing the group’s day-to-day operations to take a position with America’s Frontline Doctors, a controversial anti-vaxxer organization. Experts suspect Mack is using the new role to shore up further support for CSPOA, while still maintaining control as president of its new advisory board and continuing to speak at CSPOA trainings.
Domestic extremism researchers warn that such trainings are filled with misinformation designed to radicalize attendees, and that any relationships between officers and white supremacist or far-right militant groups undermine public trust in law enforcement.
The erosion of that trust compounds policing issues overall, making officers less effective at providing public safety, said former FBI special agent Michael German, who is now a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program.
“White supremacy in the United States, through its history, has been enforced by people with badges. So people with badges today have to accept that history to understand how their actions today are perceived,” German said.
A recent nationwide survey conducted by The Marshall Project and political scientists at Texas Christian University and Tulane University found nearly half of the 500 sheriffs who completed their survey agreed with CSPOA’s core claim that a sheriff’s authority within their county supersedes that of the state or federal government.
In Arizona, a previous AZCIR investigation revealed that more than half of the state’s 15 county sheriffs are at least partially aligned with some of the primary ideologies of the so-called “constitutional sheriff” movement, with at least four of them having direct ties to either CSPOA or another Arizona-based “constitutional sheriff” group, Protect America Now.
CSPOA was denied approval in 2021 to provide continuing education credit training by Arizona’s law enforcement certifying agency, the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board. But a recent rule change now leaves such decisions about which training officers and deputies receive to sheriffs and other agency heads.
In Texas, operating under a similar rule, more than 20% of the state’s elected sheriffs have attended CSPOA trainings, according to a recent NBC 5 Dallas-Fort Worth investigation.
And in Illinois, about 80% of the state’s sheriffs have spoken out against the state’s “assault weapons” ban, most citing their “constitutional duty” to not enforce a law they say violates residents’ Second Amendment rights—statements pulled directly from the CSPOA playbook.
“People become law enforcement officers and their very specific duty is to enforce the laws, not to make laws, not to litigate laws, not to determine what they think is a real legitimate law versus an illegitimate law that has already been determined under the Constitution,” said Rachel Goldwasser, a research analyst for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “The fact that there seems to be an increase in these law enforcement officers that say that they’re not going to perform their own duties – that’s a problem.”
Since CSPOA was founded in 2011, Mack has faced criticism for sharing the stage with known antisemites, white supremacists and militia members. He has consistently denied embracing or promoting their ideologies, going so far as to include an example in his lectures that depict a scenario in which a fictional constitutional sheriff would stand up for Rosa Parks.
But the promotion of Bushman to CEO, while adding advisory board members such as Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf from Michigan, an outspoken election denier with known affiliations to another anti-government group, and self-proclaimed Constitutional attorney Michael Peroutka, who has ties to a neo-confederate organization, are telling.
Bushman’s Liberty News Radio actively promotes white nationalism by syndicating “Political Cesspool,” according to Goldwasser, who said it provides a megaphone to the “who’s who” in white supremacist movements.
Additionally, Bushman’s personal show, Liberty Roundtable, has provided a platform to a range of anti-government figures, including Oath Keeper founder Stewart Rhodes the night before the Jan 6. insurrection. In November, Rhodes was found guilty of seditious conspiracy and other offenses in connection with the storming of the Capitol—a sentencing Bushman and Mack both railed against.
Bushman wrote in an emailed response that he invites various types of people to speak on his show because of his belief in the First Amendment. He did not respond to characterizations about his show discussing anti-LGBTQ topics or the syndicated program, “Political Cesspool,” stating instead that he believed AZCIR reporting to date included “disingenuous fabrications” that did not represent his or CSPOA’s views.
CSPOA Advisory Board
In addition to Sam Bushman, Michael Peroutka and Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf, CSPOA lists the following as advisory board members:
- Elkhart County Commissioner Brad Rogers from Indiana. Mack credits Rogers, who had previously been a sheriff in Elkhart, for providing Mack’s “constitutional sheriff” training to his team before CSPOA was established.
- Klickitat County Sheriff Bob Songer from Washington. Songer was awarded the CSPOA’s constitutional sheriff of the year award in 2019. In 2020, he refused to enforce public health safety measures tied to COVID-19.
- Grayson County Sheriff Richard Vaughan from Virginia. Vaughan said he was skeptical of voter fraud allegations until he saw “2,000 Mules.” He later said, “if the federal government is not going to investigate that, I think the sheriff should.”
- Coryell County Sheriff Scott Williams from Texas. Williams considers himself a “born-again sheriff” after having attended CSPOA training in Texas.
Rural Michigan sheriff Leaf, one of four sitting sheriffs appointed to the new advisory board, was part of the vanguard of CSPOA sheriffs attempting to investigate widely debunked allegations of election fraud from the 2020 election. By the end of 2022, he became the subject of a probe by Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel into accusations that he played a role in activists illegally accessing voting equipment in an attempt to find evidence of fraud.
Leaf’s new status with CSPOA also provides a direct link to the National Liberty Alliance, a group labeled as an anti-government sovereign citizen organization by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The National Liberty Alliance’s website disputes the characterization, citing differences between its anti-government stances and those of sovereign citizens, who believe they are exempt from the authority of the U.S. government.
The most important name on the list of advisory board members, however, is Peroutka, according to Devin Burghart, president and executive director of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, an organization that tracks far-right movements.
Burghart explained that the presence of Peroutka on the board was a clear demonstration of the organization “no longer trying to hide their far-right connections,” but “trying to institutionalize” them.
Peroutka, a staple at major CSPOA events, was the Republican nominee for Attorney General of Maryland in 2022 and was previously a member of the League of the South, a neo-confederate, white supremacist group advocating for southern secession. He is also the co-founder of the Institute on the Constitution, which provides an interpretation of the Constitution through an “American View” of law and government based on three core principles: there is a God; U.S. citizen’s rights come from this God; and “the purpose of civil government is to secure and protect our God-given rights.”
“We will be working on implementing more and more of Michael’s training as an extension of the in-person training that we start with,” Bushman said on a January broadcast of Liberty Roundtable with Peroutka as a guest.
During the show, Peroutka shared his vision of a situation in which the training he and CSPOA provide to sheriffs and deputies could then be adapted by those agencies to educate county residents in broader efforts to “raise the level of constitutional understanding” among citizens.
This article first appeared on Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.