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Why Did Maine's Governor Conspire With 'Sovereign Citizen' Extremists?

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AP Photo / Robert F. Bukaty

McCarthy and Martin are two men with a cause. They believe they have access to truths that few others know or want to hear, primarily that the American government is illegitimate and that the shadowy cabal of elites who control it are preparing for a war on the American people. The 9/11 attacks, the Boston bombing, most mass shootings, and a wide range of other events generally attributed to terrorists and criminals are actually false-flag operations perpetrated by the American government against its own people as part of a ramp-up to a final reckoning, according to the hosts. The Watchmen, who consider themselves “Sovereign Citizens” outside government control, feel it’s their responsibility to reveal these conspiracies and to help wrest back control of the country from the usurpers. Their program is broadcast six days a week.

This particular Monday morning, the Watchmen discussed new evidence that they said proved the Sandy Hook school shooting was a false-flag operation made possible through government mind control. They warned that Jewish Senators Diane Feinstein, Chuck Schumer, and Joe Lieberman were attempting to disarm the patriots of America so that they could begin their “holocaust against America’s Christian population.” They also had something more locally relevant to talk about: McCarthy’s hour-and-a-half meeting, two days earlier, with Maine Governor Paul LePage.

The meeting with the governor had taken place two days after McCarthy and a group of fellow conspiracy theorists calling themselves the Constitutional Coalition held a press conference at the State House. They stood behind a podium in the Hall of Flags (just outside LePage’s suite of offices) and announced that the president of the Maine Senate, the speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, and Governor LePage had all violated their oaths and should be removed from office. The group explained that they had submitted a set of “remonstrances” to all three government officials on January 14 accusing them of acting unlawfully and had received no reply. Under their unique interpretation of the Maine Constitution, this meant that all three politicians must surrender their elected offices. The men were there to announce their intention to enforce that judgment.

One of the participants, Constitutional Coalition leader Wayne Leach, made reference to the American Revolution and declared that “hopefully this remonstrance, which uses words, will be sufficient. The weapons, I hope, will not be used.”

Article 1, Section 15, of the Maine Constitution states that “the people have a right at all times in an orderly and peaceable manner to assemble to consult upon the common good, to give instructions to their representatives, and to request, of either department of the government by petition or remonstrance, redress of their wrongs and grievances.” Most would interpret this passage as a general guarantee of freedom of speech and petition, but Constitutional Coalition members seized upon the language to mean that they could submit a “remonstrance” in order to “give instructions to their representatives” that would be binding on all government officeholders simply through the fact of its submission.

The remonstrances the group submitted to LePage and the legislature accused Maine’s government of being unlawful, of having illegally accepted and used unconstitutional currency (anything other than gold and silver), and of coordinating with UNESCO, UNICEF, NATO, and the UN to deprive Americans of their property rights. An e-mail sent to the governor’s office by Constitutional Coalition spokesperson Phil Merletti, along with the remonstrance document, declared that legislators who had violated their oaths in this way were committing treason and domestic terrorism. He suggested that they listen to the Aroostook Watchmen radio show for more information.

The staff at the House and Senate leadership offices responded to the Constitutional Coalition’s submissions as they do to most correspondence that tilts toward the crankish—they accepted the documents politely, then filed them away to be ignored. Governor LePage’s staff acted much the same, just as they had with previous communications from members of the coalition.

LePage’s staff, including executive assistant Micki Muller, who reviews the governor’s e-mails, had previously shunted aside requests from Merletti to meet with LePage regarding a bill to reform the Land Use Regulatory Committee, which Merletti claimed was a plot by radical environmentalists and “a vicious act against the citizen’s unalienable [sic] rights of Maine people.” They similarly ignored a proposal from Wayne Leach that the state stop using the illegitimate U.S. dollar and create its own new currency called “MaineBucks.”

This time, however, word of the remonstrances and the press conference made it past the executive office gatekeepers and to the attention of Governor LePage himself. Rather than ignoring the submission and its radical claims, LePage called Merletti at home at 9 a.m. the next morning in order to set up a meeting for that Saturday with members of the Constitutional Coalition. According to a note that Merletti sent to his e-mail list later that day and that was forwarded to LePage and members of his staff, the governor was angry that he hadn’t heard about the remonstrances earlier, and during the call he pledged to fire any staffers found to have been keeping the information from him.

Later that day, LePage’s director of constituent services, Patricia Condon, asked the Executive Protection Unit of the Maine State Police to run background checks on four members of the Constitutional Coalition: Merletti, McCarthy, Leach, and another man named Gary Smart.

In this Thursday, March 5, 2009 file photo, Second Amendment Task Force organizer Schaeffer Cox prepares to address fellow gun rights supporters at Friends Community Church in Fairbanks, Alaska. His baby face belies the allegations against him, that he played a key role plotting with others to murder a judge, state troopers and other government officials in Alaska, a case one expert says is indicative of a booming sovereign citizen movement across the country. (AP Photo/Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Johnny Wagner)

As McCarthy later revealed in his conversation with Martin on the Aroostook Watchmen radio show, the meeting that weekend covered a wide range of topics. The members of the Constitutional Coalition informed LePage that the United Nations and the Rockefellers were plotting to take over Maine’s North Woods. They discussed the illegitimacy of the U.S. Department of Education and argued that the state should refuse to accept federal education funding. (According to McCarthy, the governor “hung his head and said you’re right” in response.) They also informed LePage that U.S. paper currency is unlawful. (“He was mesmerized by that,” said McCarthy.)

During the meeting, the Watchmen presented LePage with a copy of the 2012 Maine Criminal Justice Academy training manual, which instructs law enforcement officers on how to handle encounters with members of the Sovereign Citizen movement. The manual states that “the FBI considers the Sovereign movement one of the nation’s top domestic terrorist threats.” The Sovereign Citizens in the room took issue with that information and asked LePage to remove it from state law enforcement training materials.

The manual is correct in its assessment. The same rejection of government authority that prompted the Constitutional Coalition to file their remonstrances often brings Sovereign Citizens into conflict with police and government officials. Many of the crimes they commit based on their beliefs are of the white-collar variety, including bank fraud, filing false liens, money laundering, illegal firearms sales, tax violations and the manufacture of false documents. When they are confronted over these violations by police officers, whom they view as agents of a fraudulent government, however, the situations sometimes escalate to violence.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Sovereign Citizen extremists have killed at least six law enforcement officers in the United States since 2000. In one such incident in 2010, two Sovereign Citizens were pulled over by local police in Arkansas in a routine traffic stop. They pulled out an AK-47, killed the two officers, and fled the scene. They were eventually killed in a Walmart parking lot after a shootout that injured two more police officers.

In addition to these more random acts of violence, some Sovereign Citizens have also planned significant antigovernment terrorist attacks. One of the most well-known Sovereigns is Terry Nichols, who helped to plan the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people and injuring hundreds more.

On one episode of the Aroostook Watchmen show, McCarthy spoke about having met and worked with Schaeffer Cox, the founder of the Alaska Peacemakers Militia, a Sovereign Citizen group. In January 2013, Cox was sentenced to twenty-six years in prison for conspiring to murder federal and state government officials, including judges and law enforcement agents, and for stockpiling illegal weapons and explosives.

This history of violence, much of which is detailed in the law enforcement manual that was handed to Governor LePage, casts a troubling light on some of the topics of conversation at the State House meeting that day, and some of LePage’s responses.

When discussing Senate President Justin Alfond and House Speaker Mark Eves, both Democrats, McCarthy apparently claimed that they were guilty of “high treason” and noted that the penalty for treason hadn’t changed in a hundred years.

“I never said it, but the governor said it. I never opened my mouth and said the word,” explained McCarthy. “The governor looked at us and looked at his buddy and said, ‘They’re talking about hanging them.’” (The “buddy” was apparently a member of LePage’s legal staff.)

According to McCarthy, at another point in the conversation, when discussing federal funding, LePage said, “If I go any further with this bill, with this refusal to accept federal money, they will surround this building and kill me.”

“I believe he thinks that literally, absolutely literally. I said if you call we will come and defend you,” said McCarthy on his show.

McCarthy’s description of LePage’s participation and remarks might be dismissed as simply an unfortunate series of miscommunications and exaggerations of the actions of a governor just trying to appease some constituents and supporters without really understanding who he was talking to or what he was talking about. The fact that the meeting was far from a one-off event makes this less likely, however. The Watchmen describe—and e-mails and documents obtained from LePage’s staff through Maine’s Freedom of Access laws confirm—at least eight meetings over a period of nine months in 2013, almost all more than an hour in duration and some lasting almost three hours.

During these regular meetings, according to the participants, the governor was “educated” by a series of “experts” brought in by the Constitutional Coalition on a number of their conspiracy theories. LePage also made a series of promises to the Watchmen that he would assist them in pressing their cases of treason against Eves and Alfond and in pursuing their wider antigovernment aims.

At the next meeting with the governor, on February 16, the lead “expert” in attendance was Michael Coffman, a conspiracy theorist, author, and lecturer who believes that the United Nations is attempting to seize Americans’ private property and usher in an oppressive one-world government through the use of local sustainability initiatives, smart growth plans, and by pushing the “myth” of global warming.

Two days later, a discussion was held on the Aroostook Watchmen show featuring Coffman, McCarthy, Merletti, Leach, conservative activist Roger Ek, and former State Representative Henry Joy (perhaps best known for submitting a bill to allow northern Maine to secede from the rest of the state), all of whom attended the meeting. According to these participants, topics of conversation with the governor included the coming collapse of society, the illegality of income taxes, the sale of the American people as chattel to the International Monetary Fund, the buying up of ammo by the Department of Homeland Security as part of the government’s preparation for the coming war against American citizens, and the UN’s plan to depopulate the entire northern tier of Maine.

“I was very pleased with the governor,” said Coffman. “You know anybody can say anything with any kind of accent, but he seemed like he was genuinely concerned and agreed with us on almost every point.”

Sovereign Citizens Wayne Leach, Gary Smart and Phil Merletti speak at a Maine Tea Party rally (from YouTube)

This wasn’t the last time that LePage and Coffman collaborated. At the meeting, LePage agreed to attend a talk by Coffman being held two months later at Lake Region High School in Naples. According to an article in the Bridgton News describing the event, the governor attended, gave opening remarks, and then stood by as Coffman spoke to the audience not just about his UN conspiracy theories but also about a plot he claimed was underway to force the teaching of socialism in public schools and his belief that “Barack Obama’s presidency is part of a plan by the Islamic Brotherhood to turn America into an Islamic controlled nation.”

LePage met with the Sovereign Citizen group for a third time in April. As the meeting approached, LePage’s staff exchanged e-mails about who would have to attend along with the governor, with none of them seeming to want to be in the room. “There is no question but that it be staffed,” wrote executive assistant Micki Mullen. LePage’s chief of staff John McGough “pulled rank” and refused. Eventually, LePage’s director of boards and commissions, Michael Hersey, agreed to attend, as members of the legal staff weren’t available.

Less documentation exists for the contents of the April meeting (and the Watchmen didn’t discuss it on their show), but it apparently focused on the issue of wind power. The Constitutional Coalition members believe that large-scale wind power development is not just undesirable but part of a conspiracy to deprive them of their land and freedom.

A little more than a week after the meeting, while speaking to the Skowhegan Chamber of Commerce, LePage blasted wind power and made a strange claim about one wind turbine in particular:

“Now, to add insult to injury, The University of Maine, Presque Isle--anybody here been up there to see that damn windmill in the back yard?,” asked LePage. “Guess what, if it’s not blowing wind outside and they have somebody visiting the campus, they have a little electric motor that turns the blades. I’m serious. They have an electric motor so that they can show people wind power works. Unbelievable. And that’s the government that you have here in the state of Maine.”

The governor was later forced to recant his accusation after his remarks made national news. He tweeted, “It was not my intention to misspeak about UMPIs windmill, but I admit I had misinformation.” He did not reveal the source of the false conspiracy theory.

On May 29 the Constitutional Coalition members held a conference call with LePage and began to make some more specific requests of the governor. In a letter that Merletti sent to LePage before the meeting, the Sovereign Citizen leader asserted a constitutional right of Mainers to carry concealed weapons without a permit and asked that LePage stand up to the “anti-gun factions, supported by Socialist and Communist leaning defenders of the global left,” and bring an emergency bill to preserve this right. He also asked LePage to use the power of his office to “summon Sheriff Liberty” (Sheriff Randall Liberty serves Kennebec County, including Augusta, the state capital) to hear their complaints that the speaker of the house and president of the senate were committing treason. (Sovereign Citizens believe that the only legitimate law enforcement officer is an elected sheriff.) Merletti warned in his letter to LePage that if his group continued to be ignored by the legislature, “we will be left with the 1776 or 1865 option. In the pursuit of liberty there is no extremism.”

Governor LePage apparently promised to summon the sheriff, and on July 3 the Constitutional Coalition members and the governor met with Liberty in a boardroom in the State House. The sheriff had the time wrong initially, but after LePage called him on his cell phone, he arrived within five minutes.

“It was a monumental meeting. I think that meeting will definitely go down in history,” said Merletti two days later on the Aroostook Watchmen show.

In the meeting, LePage asked Liberty to visit Maine Attorney General Janet Mills and ask Mills (a Democrat elected by the legislature) to meet with the Constitutional Coalition to reconsider the group’s demands. Wayne Leach had previously been rebuffed when he visited the attorney general’s office on behalf of the coalition and asked them to arrest Speaker Eves and President Alfond.

“The governor stepped in at this point in time and he says ‘What you have to understand is that these gentlemen are telling you that they want you to follow through on this because this is a constitutional issue that they violated not only one time but three times,’” explained Merletti on the show. “That just put me back in my chair that the governor would say such a thing.”

In that meeting, the participants also again discussed the Maine Criminal Justice Academy’s Sovereign Citizen curriculum, and they asked about the role of the governor and the sheriff in the event of an attempt by the federal government, through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to institute martial law and bring in Russian troops to invade the state.

“They’re going to have to get by me first,” replied LePage, according to Merletti.

In an interview, Sheriff Liberty confirmed the timing and topics of discussion of the meeting and said he attempted to steer the conversation away from “that conspiracy theory stuff” as much as possible. Following the meeting, he complied with the governor’s request and visited the offices of the attorney general and county district attorney to ask them to hear the Constitutionalists’ case.

LePage would later echo some of the Sovereign Citizens’ rhetoric about sheriffs when he stood next to the Cobscook Bay State Park boat launch on October 17 and declared that he wouldn’t allow the federal government to close the launch as part of the government shutdown (which had actually already ended eight hours earlier).

“The sheriff is the chief law enforcement officer in the state of Maine and I will authorize him to keep this place open,” said LePage.

At the time, the remark puzzled political observers. Those without a background in Sovereign Citizen conspiracy theories brushed it off as a simple misstatement by LePage.

On August 7, the members of the Constitutional Coalition held yet another meeting with Governor LePage, this time to share new information about their attempts to prosecute Eves and Alfond. They also brought in Lise McLain, a fellow Sovereign Citizen who had done some of the research that informed the movement’s theories about the illegitimacy of the government and the courts.

Despite Sheriff Liberty’s intercession, the group’s attempts to prod the attorney general into action had failed. They told the governor that their next plan was to open up a common-law court in order to try the two men. The state courts that currently existed were fraudulent, according to the Watchmen, because they practiced “admiralty law.” This deception was revealed, they claimed, by the fact that the flags in the courtrooms had a gold fringe.

They also informed the governor of their recent meeting with the head of his administration’s risk management department, whom they had asked to rescind the state insurance policies covering the house speaker and senate president.

According to a recap by McCarthy and Merletti on the Aroostook Watchmen show, the meeting went well and they were enthusiastic about the outcome, particularly because LePage had promised to make public his support for their theories.

“The public’s not going to wake up with you and I standing on a street corner flapping our arms, but when the governor calls a press conference, they show up,” said McCarthy. “So he has said he will call a press conference at which we will be featured.”

“That will be more than interesting,” agreed Merletti. “The governor has lost a lot of his followers over the years, but they’re going to wake up to see that this man is honest.”

Gov. Paul LePage speaks to reporters shortly after the Maine House and Senate both voted to override his veto of the state budget, Wednesday, June 26, 2013, at the State House in Augusta, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

Soon after this meeting, a Freedom of Access request for the documents that have informed much of this report was filed, alerting the governor’s staff that word of the meetings had spread. Sometime before the governor’s next meeting with the Constitutionalists, LePage’s legal staff presented him with a five-page memo arguing that the Sovereign Citizens were misinterpreting the law. They wrote that the right of remonstrance “does not include and has never included any rights of citizens to compel legislation or compel the government to act in any certain way.” In short, they finally explained to LePage the sheer ridiculousness of the basic premise of the conversations the governor had been having with the group for the prior eight months.

On September 14, 2013, Governor LePage, accompanied by staff lawyer Hancock Fenton, met again with the Watchmen and discussed this legal opinion. It would be the group’s last meeting with the governor. The press conference was canceled. Although the Constitutionalists were disappointed by this outcome, they say they’re still grateful to LePage for all the time and support he gave to their cause.

“I'm not writing him off,” said McCarthy when asked in October about his opinion of the governor. “I'm very disappointed in some of the positions that he reneged on but in many respects he's done more for this state than any governor in the last thirty years.”

Even without the governor’s help, McCarthy and his fellow Watchmen haven’t given up their pursuit of Alfond and Eves. They are currently attempting to impel a grand jury to indict the two men for their supposed crimes against the Constitution.

Nor should the Watchmen be disappointed with the amount of time and attention the governor paid to them. Before his lawyers finally convinced him to stop, LePage had engaged more fully in their conspiracy theories than he had in many of his official responsibilities. In fact, he had spent far more time meeting with the Constitutionalists than he had spent meeting with the house speaker and senate president they were attempting to prosecute.

At the same time that LePage called Merletti and first proposed a meeting in January 2013, the governor was publicly refusing to meet with Alfond and Eves, whom he hadn’t communicated with personally since their election three months earlier, despite their repeated requests. Earlier that month, LePage had declined to perform the governor’s usual role in presenting his biennial budget to the legislature, instead leaving the task to his finance commissioner.

A little more than a week before his first meeting with the Sovereign Citizens, LePage had also stormed out of a meeting with three independent legislators. According to media reports, after the lawmakers questioned his proposal to cut off municipal revenue sharing the governor pounded the table, swore at them, called them idiots, and stormed out, slamming the door behind him.

In May the governor, fed up with his interactions with Democrats in the legislature, announced that he would be moving his offices out of the State House completely.(He later changed his mind.)

The meetings also represented far more time than LePage had spent talking to the press. Already known for refusing interviews, in June 2013 LePage announced that no member of his administration would be allowed to talk to three of Maine’s largest newspapers after the Portland Press Herald, Kennebec Journal, and Morning Sentinel published their investigative report on corporate influence within his Department of Environmental Protection.

Also that spring, LePage put in place a new policy to severely restrict the access of legislative committees to members of his administration, one that continued in force throughout the rest of the session. In September, shortly after his last meeting with the Sovereign Citizens, the governor announced that he would be taking the unprecedented step of refusing to submit a supplemental budget proposal for the next year, leaving the legislature to figure things out on their own.

Given this well-documented refusal by LePage to extend any courtesy to those he felt were wasting his time or working against his interests, the amount of attention and deference he paid to the members of the Constitutional Coalition (despite attempts by his staff to prevent it) makes it clear that he felt that meeting with the group was a worthy use of his time and the resources of his office. So do the statements he made and actions he took to promote their causes.

Gov. Paul LePage announces he will seek a second term, Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013, in Augusta, Maine. The Republican governor officially launched his re-election bid one year to the day before voters will decide the fate of the state's three-person race. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

Why would a governor value the support of such a group when an association with their violent, antigovernment, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories could damage him politically? How could he think that discussing how best to arrest and execute his political opponents with a group of Sovereign Citizen extremists was a good idea?

Two answers seem most likely: The first is that he may have bought into many of the Sovereign Citizens’ claims, at least until his legal staff set him straight. This is certainly what the Watchmen believe and is reinforced by his willingness to repeat some of their rhetoric in public. The other possibility may be that LePage simply wished to flatter this group with his time and attention because, despite their extremism, they are a crucial part of the electoral coalition that helped him to gain his office and may be useful to his reelection in 2014.

The Aroostook Watchmen show isn’t just a voice in the wilderness. It has hosted a who’s who of the conservative far right in Maine, including leading Christian conservative activists, the heads of the various Tea Party groups, state legislators, members of LePage’s administration, presidential candidate Ron Paul, and, during the 2010 primary, LePage himself. LePage was one of three candidates who sought the support of the show’s listeners and the endorsement of hosts Martin and McCarthy. He even participated in a live debate on the program opposite fellow Republican primary candidate William Beardsley.

Members of the Constitutional Coalition and their supporters are well connected within the larger conservative and Tea Party establishment in Maine. They have taken leadership roles in a number of local and statewide Tea Party groups, and some have sat on the Republican State Committee.

Aroostook Watchmen host Steve Martin worked closely with LePage campaign staffer Cynthia Rosen and a group of LePage supporters and Tea Party members to rewrite the state GOP platform in 2010. Some of its planks, including a mandate that the party “prohibit any participation in efforts to create a one world government,” echo Sovereign Citizen rhetoric.

During the Republican primary campaign for governor in 2010, Martin and McCarthy hosted a regular conference call that served to unite the disparate Maine Tea Party groups toward a common purpose and, eventually, toward the election of Paul LePage. They played a significant role in organizing and energizing the army of grassroots volunteers that helped him to win first the Republican primary and then the general election.

Even at that time, however, Martin and McCarthy were seen as extremists and as representing a potential threat to LePage’s campaign if they were tied too closely to the candidate. Other Republicans publicly warned him to stay away from, as one conservative columnist put it, “pirate radio stations and people who believe in black helicopters.”

The reasons why Governor LePage devoted so much time and energy to the Constitutionalists and what he thought about their theories may never be fully revealed, in part because key documents that might have provided insight into this question seem to have gone missing. According to numerous on-air statements by the Watchmen, LePage took copious notes at several of their meetings. McCarthy even remarks once about how his daughter, who was in attendance, imitated the governor by scribbling on her own pad of paper. These notes were not provided in reply to a Freedom of Access inquiry despite being specifically requested, and LePage’s legal staff claimed to have no knowledge of their existence.

The idea that LePage may simply have been humoring the Watchmen as a way to secure their continued political support is one that came up often in discussions on their radio show, but they dismissed it as unlikely based on the number and length of the meetings they had with the governor and his continued apparent interest in their theories and support for their cause.

“We started working with him in January or February, we’ve met with him on average once a month,” explained Merletti on a show in August. “The least amount of time that he’s given us is an hour and a half. We’ve gone within a few minutes of three hours. You just don’t give that kind of time to people that don’t have credibility.”

This is an excerpt from As Maine Went: Governor Paul LePage and the Tea Party Takeover of Maine, a new book by Mike Tipping out this July. Pre-order the book through Kickstarter.

Mike Tipping writes about Maine politics and policy with a focus on analysis and explanation. He works at the Maine People's Alliance and Maine People's Resource Center, writes a column for the Portland Press Herald and a political blog for the Bangor Daily News.

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Lead photo: Maine Gov. Paul LePage strains to hear a question from a reporters at a campaign appearance at Becky's Diner, Wednesday, May 7, 2014, in Portland, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)