State Representative Mark Finchem served as "Arizona Coordinator" for the Coalition of Western States, a group that supported the infamous armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon in 2016.
He's also recently communicated with individuals who were involved with the group, new emails show.
The Coalition of Western States (COWS) describes itself as a group of elected legislators and "grass roots leaders" in the Western United States "dedicated to stopping federal overreach" and the "bureaucratic terrorism" of the Bureau of Land Management, according to a December 2015 news release from the organization. The group publicly backed the Hammond family of Oregon ranchers, whose dispute with the federal government over public land management inspired the armed militia occupation of the Oregon wildlife refuge. Some members of COWS met with the militia members and fed them information.
The 2015 news release mentions Finchem, a Republican from Oro Valley, as an "Arizona Coordinator" alongside other controversial far-right politicians from Western states, like Idaho State Representative Heather Scott and Washington State Representative Matt Shea. In 2019, investigators hired by the Washington House of Representatives concluded that Shea had engaged in "domestic terrorism" during his involvement in the Oregon militia stand-off and "promoted" three "armed conflicts of political violence against the United States."
The investigators behind the Shea report uncovered an email dated March 4, 2016 that was authored by Shea and sent from a COWS email account that additionally lists Finchem as the group's "Arizona Coordinator."
The new information on Finchem's connections to COWS was dug up recently by Forward Majority, a liberal interest group focused on state legislatures.
Finchem is up for reelection in November, though his district hasn't been considered competitive in the past. Only one Democratic candidate, Felipe Perez, is trying to unseat one of the two incumbent Republicans in District 11 this year, Finchem and Bret Roberts.
"Representative Fichem’s leadership role in this organization accused of domestic terrorism isn’t just disqualifying, it’s dangerous, and the people of Arizona deserve to know the truth," said Ben Wexler-Waite, a spokesperson for Forward Majority. "For far too long, Representative Finchem’s radical beliefs have gone unchecked and we’ll do everything we can to expose his ties to these violent extremist organizations."
According to the report, COWS was created in April 2014 when Shea and other elected officials from Washington, Idaho, Nevada, and Arizona met in Bunkerville, Nevada, to support the armed militia standoff between federal officials and the Bundy family, who were resisting a federal court order involving grazing fees. The group developed a leadership strategy for "future Patriot Movement armed resistance against the federal government by creating the Coalition of Western States (COWS)," the report states.
Along with Shea, (who once wrote a guide to a "Biblical Basis for War" that advocated an option to "kill all males" in opposing groups), other COWS members were heavily involved in planning supporting the militia standoff in Oregon, the report shows. COWS members "participated in a total of four meetings with Ammon Bundy" that took place within days of the armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
Shea, who was chairman of COWS, used encrypted emails and a code name to disseminate a detailed "military-style operations plan" to COWS members and militia leaders for "use by militias and COWS members at the stand off," as well as information about law enforcement operations related to the occupation. One militia leader that participated in the occupation posted to Facebook that their group was "taking orders directly from COWS." Other COWS members joined Shea at a meeting with local law enforcement officials where they did not disclose their COWS' affiliation, then subsequently went to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to meet with militia members.
"Representative Shea and the actions of the COWS organization during the armed takeover and standoff at the Mahleur National Wildlife Refuge constitute domestic terrorism," the report states. "Evidence shows that Representative Shea conspired with others to plan and carry out the armed takeover."
"COWS is basically ... a mix of anti-government extremism and anti-public lands extremism, although I would primarily put it in the latter category," said Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow with the Anti Defamation League's Center on Extremism. "They were active supporters of Amond Bundy and the other occupiers, supporters, and defenders. They didn't participate in the stand-off but they backed it essentially."
The center considers Finchem an extremist due to his involvement in both COWS and the Oath Keepers, an anti-government militia group that Finchem has described himself as a member of in the past.
"His membership in COWS as well as his various positions on the public lands would put him into the category of anti-public lands extremism, and his connections to anti-government extremists like the Oath Keepers and Matt Shea up in Washington would put him into the anti-government extremist category," Pitcavage said. "It’s pretty problematic whenever you have anybody in public office who sympathizes with extremist groups or movements."
Finchem did not respond to New Times' requests for comment about his past role as COWS' Arizona Coordinator and whether he still maintains that title with the group.
Newly revealed emails, which were obtained through a public records request filed by Forward Majority, show that Finchem has communicated more recently with active members of COWS. For instance, Finchem emailed with Robert Corbell on November 13, 2019 regarding a feral cattle removal contract. Corbell is a former member of the Greenlee County Board of Supervisors in southeastern Arizona and has been open about his support of the occupation in Oregon.
“We knew he was going to do something,” Corbell told Oregon Public Broadcasting in 2016, referring to Ammon Bundy. “Because something had to be done.”
Similarly, other emails show Finchem corresponding with Lyle Rapacki, an Arizona resident who was the vice chairman of COWS and reportedly received email updates from Shea about the Malheur occupation that "included military style protocols and information," per the Arizona Mirror.
Rapacki is seemingly both a conservative political operative with influence on some Republican state lawmakers and an irrelevant crackpot, according to a 2017 article in the Arizona Daily Independent, a local conservative news outlet. His consulting company, Sentinel Intelligence Services, LLC, regularly issues "confidential" and "high priority" communications that "rarely contain original content," while his claimed educational and law enforcement credentials are questionable, according to the article by Loretta Hunnicutt.
"When he is not pushing paranoid pabulum, Rapacki is hiding in the shadows until he is invited by one group or another to share his 'intel'," the article states.
Rapacki is apparently a believer in QAnon conspiracy theories. According to records obtained by Forward Majority, Rapacki is a "charter member" of both the anti-government militia group Oath Keepers and the "Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association."
In an email authored by Rapacki dated March 28, 2019, that was directed to Sabrina Vasquez, a lobbyist for University of Arizona, for whom Finchem had facilitated an email introduction with Rapacki — he describes working regularly with Finchem on legislative affairs.
"Rep. Finchem has been kind to guide this legislation to a successful conclusion, and as in many experiences he and I have shared working on legislative matters," Rapacki wrote, referring to a bill introduced by Finchem in 2019 concerning assaults on hospital staff.
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Rapacki did not respond to New Times' request for comment.
In the same email, Rapacki states that he "coordinated" the legislation "over a year ago" as "Legislative Director for the Arizona Association of Threat Assessment Professionals."
Finchem has made headlines in recent years for far-right views and affiliations with controversial conservative actors. In addition to his affiliation with the Oath Keepers, he called the infamous white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, a "deep state operation" orchestrated by the media and Democrats. He's also pushed a bill to transfer management of federal lands to state control, and lifted language for a proposed teacher code of ethics from a far-right organization.
Finchem told the Maricopa Monitor last month that if he wins reelection, it would be his last term in the Legislture.