One of the two Maine officeholders whose names were on leaked membership rolls of a far-right group tied to the Capitol riots of Jan. 6, 2021, said Wednesday that he joined it years ago and left without meeting any members.
The far-right Oath Keepers were the subject of a report released Tuesday by the Anti-Defamation League, a civil rights group that found more than 500 officeholders, law enforcement and active-duty military members on a 38,000-person roll that was hacked from the militia group and leaked online in 2021.
Two Maine elected officials were on the Oath Keepers membership list, in addition to one Maine law enforcement officer and two first responders who were not named in a report that raises concerns of extremism in military and law enforcement circles.
Eleven Oath Keepers, including founder Stewart Rhodes, were charged in January with seditious conspiracy for allegedly inciting or participating in the Capitol riots, in which supporters of former President Donald Trump attempted to stop the electoral count.
Gorham Town Councilor Ben Hartwell and Piscataquis County Commissioner Wayne Erkkinen were the only two sitting Maine officeholders identified on the rolls, an ADL spokesperson said. The ADL is not identifying the one Maine law enforcement member and two first responders on the list, saying it is working with the agencies that employ them to root out extremism.
The group warns that someone’s presence on the list does not indicate for certain that a person was or still is a member.
Hartwell, a lawyer and farmer who served in the Maine Army National Guard, confirmed in an email exchange that he joined the Oath Keepers roughly eight years ago.
The Gorham councilor did not recall how he heard of the group but heard it was “built around people who had sworn an oath to defend the [Constitution].” An Oath Keepers official wrote in an email around that time that the organization wanted nothing to do with so-called unorganized militia members who had tried to “take over” a Maine group, he said.
Aside from that, Hartwell said he never got involved with the organization and met no members. He never renewed his membership because “nothing really maintained my interest,” he said.
Erkkinen said he had joined the organization around 12 years ago when it launched in Lexington, Massachusetts, attracted to a message that he compared to the conservative Tea Party movement which emerged around the same time.
He does not remember paying dues and said he cut off ties completely around five years ago when he said the group became increasingly extreme, being driven away specifically after leaders talked about bringing arms to Washington, D.C.
“They never mentioned turning into an army,” he said. “Apparently that’s what they’re trying to do now.”
Rhodes founded the group in 2009. The Justice Department has said it focuses on recruiting current and former military, law enforcement and first responders, calling it “a large but loosely organized collection of individuals, some of whom are associated with militias.”
The name comes from the vow to defend the Constitution against “foreign and domestic” enemies, holding that the government is stripping Americans of civil liberties. It has led the Southern Poverty Law Center to say the Oath Keepers’ are founded on conspiracy theories and now amount to one of the biggest far-right anti-government groups in the U.S.
The Oath Keepers gained prominence in 2014, when members played a role in an armed standoff with federal agents at a Nevada ranch. Armed members have often provided voluntary security at fraught events such as protests, leading police in Ferguson, Missouri, to condemn members armed during unrest that came after police shot and killed a Black man in 2014.
The 2021 leak has drawn reporting in other states about high-profile current or former members. In New Hampshire, law enforcement and other officials were among those on the rolls, the state’s public radio station reported in March.
Among them was state Sen. Bob Guida, a Republican who told New Hampshire Public Radio he distanced himself from the group after the standoff in 2014 because he “wasn’t comfortable with the way the group was being run.” The ADL aimed to rebut statements like that in its report.
“Even for those who claimed to have left the organization when it began to employ more aggressive tactics in 2014, it is important to remember that the Oath Keepers have espoused extremism since their founding, and this fact was not enough to deter these individuals from signing up,” the report reads.
BDN writer David Marino Jr. contributed to this report.