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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Democrats call on GOP to oust Rep. Matt Shea after report says he backed surveillance on left-wing protestors

State Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley, speaks Tuesday, April 9, 2019, on the House floor at the Capitol in Olympia. (Ted S. Warren / AP)
By Jim Camden Kip Hill and Chad Sokol The Spokesman-Review

Washington Democrats called for state Rep. Matt Shea to be expelled from the GOP caucus on Monday after a news report revealed he took part in a private group chat that discussed attacking and spying on left-wing activists.

The Guardian published parts of the 2017 conversation on Saturday, prompting denunciations by the governor, lieutenant governor and Washington State Democratic Party.

“Rep. Shea embodies a strain of extreme ideology that, throughout the decades and into the present, has caused deep harm to people and families,” Gov. Jay Inslee said in a statement Monday. “I strongly condemn both his rhetoric and his behavior.”

The Guardian said it received a copy of the text conversation from someone who participated in the chat but who requested anonymity. The chat took place on Signal, an encrypted messaging app. Shea, who represents Spokane Valley, reportedly used the screen alias “Verum Bellator” – Latin for “truth warrior.”

Other participants included Jack Robertson, who hosts the far-right radio show Radio Free Redoubt using the pseudonym John Jacob Schmidt, and Anthony Bosworth, who’s known for participating in the 2016 occupation of a wildlife refuge in Oregon, bringing guns to the federal courthouse in Spokane and physically abusing his 17-year-old daughter in a videotaped public altercation in Yakima.

Robertson and Bosworth both identified a man whom they alleged gave the messages to the Guardian, calling him a traitor. That man declined to comment when reached Monday through Facebook.

The chat apparently took place in the lead-up to a rumored “antifa” revolt. Antifa is short for anti-fascist and describes a segment of left-wing activists who sometimes resort to violence. The rumored Nov. 4 uprising received much attention from far-right conspiracy theory websites but never actually happened.

The leaked portions of the chat show that Bosworth proposed confronting “antifa members” as well as their parents, workplaces and landlords.

“We can hit them in there (sic) safe spaces,” Bosworth wrote, according to the Guardian. “If we can catch a few of them alone and work him over a little bit.”

Robertson later added “child’s daycare location” to the list of suggested targets.

And, referring to one specific Spokane woman, Robertson described an assault in graphic detail: “Fist full of hair, and face slam, to a Jersey barrier. Treat em like communist revolutionaries. Then shave her bald with a K-Bar USMC field knife.”

The leaked portions of the chat don’t show Shea made threats of violence himself, but there’s also no indication he attempted to dissuade the others.

He appeared to back the idea of conducting surveillance when he asked chat participants for a list of people on whom he should perform background checks.

Robertson insisted on his radio show this weekend that all mentions of violence occurred before Shea joined the chat and were made as a “tongue-in-cheek” response to rumors of violence by leftist groups. But there have been no indications that such violence was imminent.

Asked for references to specific social media posts encouraging violence, Bosworth said he didn’t have any on hand but claimed they were “searchable on the internet.”

The Guardian story mentions that Shea expressed a willingness to conduct “BG checks” on multiple people, including an organizer for Indivisible, a local group that has organized public protests of the policies of President Donald Trump and the Republican Party.

Cynthia Hamilton has performed that role for the group, which formed following Trump’s election in 2016.

On Monday, Hamilton said she hadn’t seen the messages but believed they likely represented a desire to look into her background.

She said the fears that Shea’s defenders are now using as justification for their chat about surveillance display a paranoia that doesn’t reflect the aims of protesters in Spokane, who have remained peaceful.

“They’re setting up a boogeyman,” Hamilton said.

“It’s a bullets or ballot kind of world right now, and we’re on the ballot side,” she added.

Bosworth reiterated that Shea was not part of the chat during the discussions of violence, and that those suggestions were not made seriously.

“We simply were just venting in a private conversation, and how we felt about it,” Bosworth said. “We were mad.”

Bosworth also claimed the first suggestions of violence came from the man who provided the texts to the Guardian, yet he declined to provide a copy of the full message thread.

“For me, the conversation was intended to be private, and I prefer it stay private,” Bosworth said. “It contains comments and opinions of others involved.”

Prominent Democrats denounced Shea’s participation in the chat, noting it’s not the first time he has said or done something inflammatory. In his statement, Inslee said Shea’s “history of hate has now crossed a new line.”

Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib and Tina Podlodowski, chairwoman of the Washington State Democratic Party, urged Republican leaders to censure Shea.

“I call on House Republicans to do the right thing and eject Matt Shea from their caucus,” Habib wrote on Twitter. “Obtaining background checks on people for the purpose of planning violence against them is a crime, and even offering to do so is clearly 100% unacceptable in the Legislature.”

House Republican Leader J.T. Wilcox, of Yelm, said he was unswayed by the calls from Democrats. He said he spoke with Shea over the weekend and on Monday.

“Threats of political violence have no place in our society and I condemn them in the strongest terms,” Wilcox said in a statement Monday evening.

While the talk of violence was attributed to people other than Shea, the statements were “wrong and deeply upsetting,” Wilcox said, adding that he would continue discussing the matter with Shea and other GOP leaders.

The party did not reelect Shea as its caucus chairman in November, following revelations that he had distributed a manifesto titled “Biblical Basis for War,” which calls for the killing of those who flout “biblical law.”

At the time, a number of major donors, including Avista Corp. and the BNSF Railway Co., also demanded refunds from Shea’s campaign. He and several of his supporters have said the document was taken out of context.

Previously, Shea was criticized for traveling to Nevada in 2014 and Oregon in 2016 to meet with armed protestors who were occupying federal lands at the behest of ranchers Cliven and Ammon Bundy. On social media, he has shared articles espousing anti-Muslim sentiment and talked of efforts to establish Marxist “counter states.”

He has likened Planned Parenthood to Nazi Germany, pulled a gun during a road rage incident and called journalists “dirty, godless, hateful people.” His ex-wife accused him of physical and emotional abuse, and he is still fighting a defamation lawsuit for implicating a sheriff’s deputy in a triple homicide.

Shea currently serves as the top Republican on the House Environment and Energy Committee.