The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

California sheriff admits he once was member of far-right Oath Keepers group linked to Capitol rioters

Sheriff deputies in Riverside County, Calif., maintain a barricade in November 2020. (Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images)

The sheriff of California’s fourth-most populous county has admitted to previously being a dues-paying member of the Oath Keepers, a far-right group whose associates and members were charged in connection with the Capitol riot, following a hack of the entity’s website.

Sheriff Chad Bianco of Riverside County, Calif., which is home to nearly 2.5 million people and destinations like Palm Springs and Joshua Tree National Park, said in a statement this week that he had joined the Oath Keepers in 2014, but “learned the group did not offer me anything,” leading him to end his membership.

“I am not currently a member and have not been a member since 2014. My oath is to the Constitution and laws of the land,” he said in the statement, “and to the people of Riverside County, who I am sworn to protect.” Bianco was not immediately available for comment.

Bianco’s past affiliation with the Oath Keepers prompted local residents and officials to call for his resignation. Palm Springs Mayor Christy Gilbert Holstege (D) said Tuesday that Bianco’s “association with this group is offensive to all those who believe in American democracy,” noting its connection to the Jan. 6 insurrection.

“He should resign immediately,” Holstege said. “The people of Riverside County deserve better.”

Other law enforcement officials were found to have been Oath Keepers after a group called Distributed Denial of Secrets leaked what it said was the organization’s member database. Bianco’s association with the group gained attention after JJ MacNab, an extremism expert at George Washington University, noted it on Twitter.

The revelations over Bianco’s past as an Oath Keepers member also called attention to his involvement with another organization that has expressed strong views against the federal government.

Bianco told the Southern California News Group he believes he learned of the Oath Keepers through the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association. That group’s website includes language in bold saying: “the Constitution makes it clear that the power of the sheriff even supersedes the powers of the President.”

While outspoken, conservative sheriffs have long been part of the nation’s history, their political clout and ambitions have skyrocketed since Donald Trump’s presidency.

Oath Keepers founder draws scrutiny from federal officials and followers

The Capitol insurrection renewed concerns over far-right, extremist beliefs among some in law enforcement. After the riot, the president of the National Sheriffs’ Association, David Mahoney, told The Washington Post that many law enforcement leaders have viewed officers with extremist beliefs as outliers, erroneously categorizing it as a freedom of speech issue and “not recognizing it was chiseling away at our democracy.”

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Bianco questioned the authority of state and federal officials.

In December, Bianco said his office would not enforce stay-at-home orders issued by Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), calling the measures “ridiculous” and the governor’s attitude “dictatorial” in a video posted to his Facebook page.

Bianco said last month that he would not enforce a vaccine mandate on sheriff’s office employees, calling himself “the last line of defense from tyrannical government overreach” in a podcast made by his office and reported on by the Los Angeles Times.

Bianco has embraced his position as sheriff, building a loyal following of thousands on social media. In a recent Instagram post, Bianco showed himself lounging next to a pool with a large sheriff’s badge logo built into the pool’s floor.

Anti-government groups like the Oath Keepers, one of the largest groups of its kind in the United States, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, have fueled concerns about a rise in domestic extremism.

Some 20 Oath Keepers and associates have been charged in connection with the attack on the Capitol. The group, along with the Proud Boys, a far-right entity with a history of violence, has been central to federal investigations into the attack.

Bianco distanced himself from the Oath Keepers’ participation in the riot, telling the Southern California News Group that it was “completely wrong and against the law.”

But he did not push back on his association with the Oath Keepers, saying, “I’m not ashamed of what I did in 2014.”