State Rep. Mike Nearman was not on hand Tuesday morning, as he was arraigned for two misdemeanors in connection with allowing armed demonstrators into the state Capitol last year.
Instead, Nearman’s attorney, Jason Short, appeared for a brief hearing in which not much occurred. A judge was set for Nearman’s case, and a new hearing was scheduled for June 29.
“It’s just an arraignment,” Short said in an interview following the hearing. “A very quick process.”
The attorney would not comment on Nearman’s reaction to the two charges against him, one count of first-degree official misconduct, and one count of second-degree criminal trespassing. Nor would Short comment on how Nearman is feeling. The four-term Republican from Polk County revealed last week that he had contracted “a really bad case” of COVID-19, from which he was beginning to recover.
Nearman has not attended House floor sessions in weeks, and appears to have been the cause of a COVID-19-related delay in House activity in April.
The criminal case against Nearman stems from a Dec. 21 incident where prosecutors say he allowed far-right demonstrators, some of them armed, to enter the Capitol while lawmakers were meeting for a special session. The group had gathered outside the Capitol that morning to protest the building’s ongoing closure to the general public due to COVID-19.
Surveillance footage shows Nearman exited the building via a door that some demonstrators had gathered near, and did not break stride or try to intervene as two men immediately held the door open and began signaling to others to enter. Nearman immediately walked around the Capitol and entered from another door.
Nearly immediately, demonstrators who entered the building were confronted by police. A scuffle ensued, but officers fell back when sprayed with mace, allowing the group to gain a foothold in the building. They were eventually cleared, but some members of the crowd shattered glass doors and assaulted journalists later in the day.
While Nearman was not in attendance Tuesday, some of his supporters were. Roughly a dozen people gathered outside the courthouse to wave signs and protest Nearman’s prosecution.
“I do support his effort to support the Oregon Constitution,” said Tom Madison, a Salem resident who, like Nearman, says that the ongoing closure of the Capitol violates a provision in the Constitution that requires deliberations of the Legislature to be “open.” “I think that’s important. I’ve seen what he did that day.”
A sign Madison made the night before read: “Thank you, Rep. Mike Nearman. Opening doors to the people’s business.”
Legislative leaders have argued that, since all legislative hearings and floor sessions are streamed live and the public is allowed to testify remotely, they are complying with the state Constitution.
Also on hand Tuesday was Kris Golly, a Dallas resident who was present on Dec. 21, and said she briefly entered the Capitol along with other demonstrators.
“We wanted in,” said Golly. “We wanted our rights and our voices to be heard in the Capitol. What the governor and [House Speaker] Tina Kotek are doing is purely wicked.”
Though some members of the crowd later committed destruction and assault, Golly said the majority of her group was not violent. “We were not rioters,” said Golly, who said she knows Nearman and is of his constituents. “We were there chanting ‘open up.’”
Also present on Tuesday was at least one detractor of Nearman’s: Peter Starzynski, executive director of the Northwest Accountability Project, which has repeatedly called on the lawmaker to resign.
“Imagine what would have happened if the police hadn’t stopped them.” said Starzynski. “We would have seen something like what happened in Washington, D.C… These are not pro-democracy folks.”
According to the charges against him, Nearman abused his authority in allowing unauthorized people to enter the Capitol, and assisted them in committing criminal trespass. The charges carry a maximum penalty of more than a year in jail and $7,500 in fines. Nearman has vowed to take the matter to trial.
The lawmaker also faces consequences in the Legislature, where an ongoing investigation could lead to punishment as serious as expulsion. Such a move, however, would require the votes of at least three House Republicans. It is not clear any would support such a step.