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Shawn Vestal: Stevens County group swears oaths of officials are improper

They call themselves the People’s Oversight Committee – sometimes just “The People” – and they’re doing their darnedest to engineer a coup d’état in Stevens County.

Using the style of legal reasoning and logical coherence that marks so many self-styled anti-government groups, from the Posse Comitatus to sovereign citizens to the Freemen, the committee has declared that every elected official in Stevens County is illegitimate. Why? Because, The People say, the officials have not properly filed their oaths of office with the state.

The People acknowledge that the Stevens County officials took their oaths of office, and are following the same procedure as other elected officials in the state. But the oaths were not filed with the state auditor, and this constitutes, they say, an “unprecedented affront to our liberties.”

The People have demanded the officials vacate their offices, writing: “The persons named herein and those conspiring to create their non-feasance have destroyed the People’s goodwill, confidence, faith and trust in Government and exposed to the People a train of abuse and usurpation in the People’s efforts to seek justice and redress our grievances with Government.”

As you see, restraint is not this group’s thing. Three members were convicted of disorderly conduct for a courtroom outburst in January. One of them, Dennis Patterson, was sentenced to 10 days in jail. The group has filed “criminal charges” against the sheriff and others. It issues demands and deadlines. Some members take their video cameras into the court clerk’s office to record themselves demanding to know where the oaths of office are kept.

Tim Rasmussen, Stevens County prosecutor, said some group members have claimed that they are free from the restraints of Washington law and have “talked about forming a citizens grand jury and indicting people for crimes and essentially setting up a shadow government.”

All over oaths of office? Honestly? There is clearly more to The People’s cause – their writing is full of the far-right rhetoric of tyranny and liberty and usurpation and sovereignty, as though they were writing defiantly to King George III. But it is empty of specifics.

I read many of the group’s documents – which are written with the sporadic capitalization patterns that I have come to think of as jazz grammar – as well as interviewed two group members and one former group member, and my question was always the same: Isn’t there something more to this than the filing of the oath? A complaint about taxation? Something involving the Antichrist? A claim that the God-given sovereignty of the individual invalidates zoning laws? A plan for an end-of-days revolution?

The group members insist it’s about the oath, and the oath is important.

“If the official does not follow the oath of office properly, that office is vacant,” said Carla Hoch, one of the group’s members. “They can go and they can violate you day and night, whenever they want, because they’re not bound by anything in the law.”

Ernie Hoch, Carla’s husband, compared the oath issue to hitting a home run in baseball – even though the officials took the oath, they still have to touch all the bases by following the legal procedures.

“The question remains, why are these people not following state law?” he said. “The resistance is kind of unnerving.”

The People believe all 11 elected officials in Stevens County are illegitimate, from Sheriff Kendle Allen to Judge Gina Tveit to Rasmussen to the county commissioners.

“We’re basically the … only legitimate government in the county at this time,” Carla Hoch said.

Wait. What? Do The People consider themselves a government? Carla Hoch said they formed the group with a public notice, took nominations and voted on leaders, and filed their oaths of office properly. I told her it sounded more like a club or an organization.

“We are not a club or organization,” she said. “All of us volunteer our time … It’s kind of like the county commission.”

Then I asked Ernie Hoch about this, and he said, “We don’t think of ourselves as a government.”

So. The oath of office. The People’s Oversight Committee insists that state law requires the oaths to be recorded and filed with the state, though the RCW the group cites actually mentions more than one option for filing the oaths – including filing them in the county auditor’s office, as they do in Stevens County. Rasmussen said different county auditors do it differently, and there is no direction as specific as the committee claims there is.

A member of the group filed a court complaint. Judge John Strohmaier ruled in January that the officials have “proper Oaths of Office filed with the Auditor’s Office in Stevens County and can properly hold their positions.”

The People were unpersuaded. Group member Dennis Patterson sent an email urging The People to show up in Tveit’s courtroom and read a manifesto: “People will be inspired to follow our live action demonstration holding unfit public servants accountable. Without our Consent they have no authority. Without authority these wannabe emperors have no clothes. Should they belatedly follow the law it is only because We made them fear us enough to do it.”

He and two others attended a court hearing in January and tried to read their manifesto.

“They talked over” the judge, Rasmussen said. “They wouldn’t be quiet. She told them to leave and they wouldn’t leave.”

All were arrested. Two of the men entered deferred plea deals. Patterson took it to a jury and represented himself against charges of disorderly conduct and interference with a court proceeding. You know what they say about people who act as their own lawyers.

“The jury deliberated about 20 minutes,” Rasmussen said, “and convicted him on both counts.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.