House Republican leaders expelled state Rep. Matt Shea from their caucus Thursday after an independent investigation found the Spokane Valley lawmaker’s role in the armed takeover of an Oregon wildlife refuge in 2016 amounted to “an act of domestic terrorism against the United States.”
The findings of the four-month investigation are detailed in a 108-page report that was delivered to rank-and-file members of the House on Thursday. Leaders of both parties called for Shea’s resignation and said the findings had been forwarded to the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office.
“He absolutely should resign,” said Republican Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, of Yelm. “His role as a House Republican is over.”
Shea responded with characteristic defiance, writing on Facebook late Thursday: “Like we are seeing with our President this is a sham investigation meant to silence those of us who stand up against attempts to disarm and destroy our great country. I will not back down, I will not give in, I will not resign. Stand strong fellow Patriots.”
The House hired the Rampart Group, a Seattle firm headed by a former FBI agent, to conduct the investigation in July. The probe involved interviews with more than two dozen witnesses and drew on troves of documentary evidence, including private texts and emails that have been leaked by Jay Pounder, a former Shea confidant and bodyguard.
The report largely corroborates previous news stories about Shea’s involvement in the far-right “patriot” movement, his preoccupation with military-style prepping and reconnaissance, his belief in an imminent civil war and government collapse, his conspiracy theories about Muslims and liberals and his dream of achieving a Christian theocracy.
But the report also reveals new details about Shea’s involvement in standoffs with federal agents in Nevada, Oregon and Idaho, and it offers an official determination that Shea has sought to intimidate political opponents and condoned acts of violence by his supporters.
In the days leading up to the 2016 occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, the investigation found, Shea was among a group of state officials who participated in several “preplanning” phone calls with Nevada rancher Ammon Bundy. Shea was operating as chairman of the Coalition of Western States, or COWS, a group that included lawmakers from several other states, including Idaho state Rep. Heather Scott.
The report also describes how Shea “authored and circulated an operations plan” for militia members to use during the standoff and how he sent one of his most trusted associates, Anthony Bosworth, to participate.
The Malheur standoff ostensibly began as a protest of the criminal sentencings of two ranchers who had been convicted of intentionally setting fires on public land. The 41-day standoff ended only after dozens of protesters were arrested and one, LaVoy Finicum, was shot and killed.
“The action was portrayed as a spontaneous act, but this investigation has obtained information that the armed takeover was meticulously planned in December 2015 by conspirators that included Representative Shea,” the report states.
That’s contrary to Shea’s previous characterizations of his involvement in the standoff. He told the Legislative Ethics Board in 2016 that his visit to the refuge was merely a “fact-finding” mission aimed at ensuring a “peaceful” resolution.
The report also details Shea’s involvement in the 2014 occupation of federal land near Bunkerville, Nevada, which began after Ammon Bundy’s father, Cliven, refused to pay cattle grazing fees. And it reveals that Shea took part in a third armed confrontation in Priest River, Idaho, in August 2015, which has not been widely reported.
According to the report, Shea called on supporters to gather in Priest River to block federal officials from seizing firearms from an elderly veteran. A health care professional had determined the man should not possess guns after he suffered a stroke, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs planned to seize them “pursuant to VA regulations for individuals receiving VA benefits,” the report states.
About 100 people, including Shea, stood outside the man’s home and prevented a VA employee from entering, according to the report. Many were armed, though no one was hurt.
Speaking later at a rally in Priest River, Shea described the VA’s actions as “bureaucratic terrorism.” According to the report, he told his supporters, “We are telling the federal government they are going to have to come through us to get to this veteran.”
The final section of the report provides a damning “risk assessment” of Shea. It notes that he “has suffered no negative repercussions to his actions” and draws political power from his activities in the patriot movement.
“With angry armed insurgents called into action against elements of law enforcement, every situation instigated or planned by Representative Shea carried with it significant risk of bloodshed and loss of life,” the report states. “ … Representative Shea presents a present and growing threat of risk to others through political violence.”
Before the report was made public Thursday, Shea’s attorney, Mark Lamb, issued a statement calling the investigation an unprecedented look into “lawful communications between a member of the House and citizens of this country.” The statement also asserted Shea had been “denied any opportunity to review and respond to its results,” though the report says he declined to meet with investigators.
Lamb, who has indicated he plans to file a lawsuit over the investigation, did not respond to messages seeking further comment Thursday evening.
The report prompted House Republican leaders to expel Shea from their caucus and strip him of his committee assignments, including his ranking position on the Environment and Energy Committee. His name and picture disappeared Thursday from the House GOP website.
The six-term lawmaker will have to find a new office, won’t receive assistance from caucus staff and won’t be allowed into caucus meetings to discuss legislation and strategy when the next session begins, said Wilcox, the minority leader.
Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, said he was “very disturbed by the details of this report” and agreed with Wilcox that Shea should resign.
But if Shea does not resign voluntarily, it would be premature to talk about expelling him from the Legislature, Wilcox said. That, he said, would sidestep the will of voters in the 4th Legislative District.
Attempts to reach other Spokane-area Republicans, including Shea’s fellow 4th District lawmakers, Sen. Mike Padden and Rep. Bob McCaslin, for comment Thursday were unsuccessful.
“The inquiry into Rep. Matt Shea’s conduct displays an obsession with conspiracy theories and violence that is incompatible with public office,” Lindsay Schubiner, program director at the progressive Western States Center in Portland, said in a statement. “The Washington House of Representatives must act immediately to hold him accountable. Shea’s egregious and threatening behavior warrants removal from office.”
Expelling Shea would require a two-thirds vote in the House. Although Democrats have a majority, the move would require at least some Republican votes. Only one lawmaker has been expelled from the Legislature in the history of the state. Nelson G. Robinson was ousted in 1933 for sexually abusing a 12-year-old girl.
If Shea resigns or is expelled, Republican precinct committee officers would nominate three possible replacements, and the Spokane County commissioners would choose one from that list to serve in the position until next November’s election.
House Speaker Designate Laurie Jinkins, of Tacoma, said Democrats would work with Republicans and “review and digest” the report before agreeing on the next step.
Both Wilcox and Jinkins, who previously served as chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee when Shea was the ranking Republican on that panel, said the investigation had nothing to do with Shea’s political views.
“We respect Rep. Shea’s right to free speech and his personal beliefs, but those ideals are not what this is about,” Jinkins said in a statement. “This is about a state lawmaker who, according to the investigative findings, engaged in an act of domestic terrorism rather than choosing political or legal avenues to change laws and policies he disagrees with.”
Lori Feagan, a Spokane Valley nurse practitioner who plans to campaign against Shea as a Democrat in 2020, called the report “incredibly disturbing.”
“We must put our community’s safety and our future over party loyalty,” Feagan said in an email. “I’m grateful to Republican leadership for acknowledging that Matt Shea’s extremism is unacceptable and unwelcome. Now that his true character has been more fully revealed, I have confidence that our voters, both Republican and Democrat, will send the same message next year. Once we know better, we must do better.”