Some top Deschutes County officials are planning to participate in or support two far right, anti-COVID restriction events in coming months.
Deschutes County Sheriff Shane Nelson is scheduled to speak to a People’s Rights meeting Jan. 18. The group was founded by Ammon Bundy, who led the 2016 armed standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. People’s Rights is a network of groups formed in 2020 centered around Bundy’s anti-government ideology and resisting public health mandates.
Then in April, County Commissioner Patti Adair plans to attend a “Reawaken America” rally headlined by disgraced former U.S. Army general Michael Flynn.
Flynn was President Trump’s first National Security Advisor for 22 days in 2017 before resigning because he lied to FBI agents about a secret phone call he had held with then-Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak. He twice pleaded guilty to lying to the F.B.I., but was pardoned by the former president in 2020.
Local organizer Troy Smith courted the event’s national promoters by assuring that two Republican Deschutes County commissioners were supportive of the cause, and that Oregon’s mask mandate would not be enforced. When contacted, those commissioners said Smith mischaracterized their conversations.
The Reawaken America event is planned at the Deschutes County Expo Center in Redmond.
A Reuters investigation found that in Dec. 2020 Flynn urged Trump to deploy the military to overturn the election results. Now, Flynn is touring the country to spread false claims of election fraud and rail against public health restrictions. The Reawaken America rallies are backed by evangelical religious leaders and media personalities who push conspiracy theories.
Emails shared with staff of the county expo center last October show Smith pressed tour founder and conservative talk show radio host Clay Clark to come to Central Oregon by guaranteeing local political support from “2 of the 3 county commissioners both of whom sit as conservative republicans.” Adair and Commissioner Tony DeBone are the only Republicans on the county commission.
“Once booked they will personally assist in spreading the word about the event in total support of it,” Smith wrote. “They are comfortable as is the facility manager with the event managing their own decisions on masking. They are not going to police this.”
DeBone said he had one conversation with the organizers during which they asked him if he’d try to stop the event if “it gets interesting and political.” According to DeBone, he told them political events are allowed so long as they follow the rules.
“There’s a couple of statements in there that I’m like, ‘Woah, that’s taking it pretty far from our one conversation,” DeBone said, referring to Smith’s emails. “Those are some pretty bold statements referring to something that was just never talked about.”
Event organizers did not respond to interview requests.
Adair confirmed she spoke to Smith and planned to attend the event.
“I believe in the First Amendment,” she said. “It’s good exposure to hearing different people and what their research is.”
Leading up to and immediately after the Nov. 2020 election, Adair retweeted false narratives that the election was rigged, the Democrats cheated, or that widespread fraud somehow affected the results. This week, Adair said she had not paid close attention to claims of election fraud, nor the QAnon conspiracy theories trumpeted at Flynn’s recent events.
Adair also said she cares about public health protocols and is concerned with the rapid spread of COVID-19 in Deschutes County, which is among the top counties in the state hit by the latest wave of the coronavirus. An estimated 1 in every 19 residents of Deschutes County has an active COVID-19 infection, according to figures published Thursday. At least 225 county residents have died from the disease caused by the virus since the pandemic began.
Adair denied providing assurances that the state mask mandate wouldn’t apply, but offered an unclear recollection of her contacts with Smith.
“I know masks are a personal choice,” Adair said. “What I’ve said on the record about masks is that if you’re gonna wear a mask, you need to make sure your mask works.”
Both commissioners hoped the high local infection rate will subside by April. Asked if she would wear a mask at the event, Adair said: “I usually do.” DeBone said protocols at the time of the event will be appropriately tailored to the state of the pandemic.
Deschutes County Fair & Expo Center Director Geoff Hinds was on an Oct. 20 email chain that included the original email with assurances the state mask mandate wouldn’t apply for the event. When contacted by OPB, Hinds also pushed back against the organizer’s claims that public health regulations won’t be enforced.
“We would expect that any of our partners, including them, would follow all existing guidance rules and laws at all times while utilizing our property,” Hinds said. “That’s a part of our agreement with them.”
Hinds said he never told event organizers they can manage their own decisions on masking. He said organizers only asked if they are allowed to remove masks for eating and drinking. He pointed out a contract to rent the expo center space signed by the event organizers stipulates that all events must follow public health laws and regulations.
Election and health disinformation have cost lives, said Deschutes County Commissioner Phil Chang, the sole Democrat on the three-seat board. He said people encouraging the group to come should be ashamed of themselves..
“I would be willing to call OSHA on us,” Chang said. “We need to make it 100% clear to these event organizers that state requirements do apply to us. And we will in turn put those requirements on anyone who’s using a county facility.”
Chang told the Bend Bulletin on Thursday that the county would send a letter to Reawaken America organizers, clarifying they must wear masks.
“This will not be a matter of two commissioners denying things and ending there,” Chang told the newspaper. “I want people to know there will be follow through.”
On Jan. 18, a different extremist group is hosting an event with Nelson, the Deschutes County sheriff.
According to the People’s Rights website, Nelson will “speak from the heart and answer questions from those in attendance.”
According to a statement from the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office, Nelson agreed to speak to the group about how the county is responding to Measure 110, which decriminalized low-level drug possession and put money toward treatment programs. Deschutes County has since started a program to divert drug users into rehab.
People’s Rights Oregon organizers did not return interview requests about the event.
Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Sgt. Jayson Janes said the meeting with People’s Rights is not unusual. Janes said the sheriff often speaks to groups like Rotary and the Lions Club, two non-political community service organizations which date back to the turn of the century.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, a group that tracks hate groups and extremist organizations in the U.S., said People’s Rights “seeks to build a nationwide network of right-wing, often anti government activists that can be called upon to quickly mobilize against perceived threats.”
A regional People’s Rights leader in Montana described the group as an “‘Uber-like’ militia response system that can be mobilized at any time.”
In 2020, amidst racial justice protests aimed largely at racist and violent policing, Nelson declined to meet with the Central Oregon Peacekeepers, a social justice group, citing the group’s “negativity towards law enforcement.”
Since the group’s founding, armed People’s Rights members have shown up at the homes of politicians, health officials and police officers because of COVID-19 restrictions.
The Sheriff’s Office commented on a Facebook post Thursday criticizing Nelson for speaking to People’s Rights, offering the same presentation to the Central Oregon Peacekeepers.