Richard Mack, a former Arizona sheriff and longtime hero to far-right anti-government activists, could barely contain his delight at receiving a rare honor from Republican Congressman Chuck Edwards: an embossed letter showering him with praise and a medallion bearing Edwards’ congressional seal.
It will become “a family heirloom,” said Mack, founder and chairman of the Constitutional Sheriffs & Peace Officers Association (CSPOA), holding the letter and medallion up to the camera and reading Edwards’ words to his podcast audience as if they were from holy writ:
“‘We know that when those who seek to destroy our country rise, you act as a strong line of defense for the soul of our nation,’” Mack read, pausing to savor that phrase.
“I really like that: ’for the soul of our nation’,” Mack commented to the podcast’s co-host. “This is probably just about the best letter that has ever been written to me!”
Edwards’ letter on his congressional stationery so flattered Mack that he seemed to grope for words to laud Edwards, a freshman, to the audience: “He’s probably the hardest working person in all of Congress,” Mack gushed. “He’s on three major committees and he works hard. He’s constantly working and trying to help the people of his district.”
Edwards’ letter was equally heavy in superlatives: “Your work in protecting our constitution is inspirational. For years, you and your organization, the Constitutional Sheriffs & Peace Officers Association (CSPOA), have been trailblazers for law enforcement officers across the country. It is the work of constitutional law enforcement officers like yourself and so many others that allows us all to sleep easier every night…. [W]elcome to beautiful Western North Carolina and Cherokee County. We are honored to be home to one of your events.”
Members of Congress send letters by the score, typically well wishes for anniversaries and birthdays or for a constituent’s accomplishment. But Mack is not the typical recipient of public praise from a mainstream figure, much less a congressman.
Legal scholars and researchers who track racist, white separatist, and anti-government groups, have long regarded the ex-sheriff from a remote corner of Arizona as an ally of such causes, if not an extremist himself. He is a proponent of a concept dating to Anglo-Saxon King Alfred the Great more than 1,000 years ago and embraced today by anti-government activists, especially those wary of the federal authority.
The concept holds that the county sheriff is the supreme legal figure in that jurisdiction, more powerful than state and federal authority, including the president. In short, the sheriff is the law.
In Mack’s words, prominently displayed on the CSPOA website: “The county sheriff is the one who can say to the feds, ‘Beyond these boundaries you shall not pass.’”
Constitutional experts scoff at this concept. Dennis Kenney, an expert on police law at the John Jay College of Law in New York, called it “silly” in an interview with Asheville Watchdog. “There’s no foundation for it at all,” he said.
He and others warn that, if put into wide practice, it would lead to a chaotic application of the nation’s laws, a revival of six-gun, Wild West justice with modern-day Wyatt Earps.
“This is a very extreme ideology and nobody should have anything to do with it,” Mark Pitcavage, a senior researcher with the Anti-Defamation League told The Watchdog.
Mack and the CSPOA, which he founded as a for-profit venture in 2011, have direct ties to “extremist movements with a history of violence,” Pitcavage said. Some of these movements have “committed terrorist acts, been involved with even more terrorist plots, and have engaged in shootouts with law enforcement,” he said.
Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism and who has reported extensively on Mack, said the threat posed by the CSPOA stems from the group’s mission to entice sheriffs across the nation to embrace this extreme concept. She said many sheriffs are attracted to its ideology because they desire to embody the “mythology of the all-powerful lawman.”
“Having a congressman endorse something like this is really, really troubling. Mack will be touting that letter all over the place,” she said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if [Edwards’ letter] didn’t end up on the front of his website.”
Beirich was correct. The letter – along with a photo of Edwards and the video of Mack’s theatrical reading – resides on the CSPOA website.
Especially ironic in light of his praise for Edwards, Mack also asserts on the site, “The greatest threat we face today is not terrorists. It’s our own federal government.”
The Watchdog sought comment from Mack through the CSPOA website about Edwards’ letter and the organization’s efforts to recruit in North Carolina, but our request was not acknowledged.
The Watchdog also requested an interview with Edwards to ask him to explain his deferential treatment of Mack.
Through his press secretary, Edwards wrote that he wasn’t aware of Mack’s decades-long engagement with extremists and far-right groups. “I know of [Mack] only through his successful Supreme Court case focused on the Second Amendment rights… I will defend the Second Amendment with all the zeal that members of the press apply when defending the First Amendment,.” Edwards wrote.
The ex-sheriff’s presence in Cherokee County came at the invitation of its newly elected sheriff, Dustin Smith, who boasts of his affiliation with CSPOA and may be the first in North Carolina to be a member of the group.
About 90 attendees gathered in the First Baptist Church of Murphy to hear Mack’s presentation, according to reporter Jessica Pishko, who covered the program in early September for The Assembly.
She reported that only a handful of law enforcement officers were among them, including Cherokee County Sheriff Smith, Yadkin County Sheriff Nick Smitherman, four Cherokee deputy sheriffs, and three sheriffs from neighboring counties in Tennessee and Georgia. The rest appeared to be activists in local conservative groups, Pishko wrote.
The precise number of CSPOA-aligned sheriffs among the roughly 3,000 nationwide isn’t publicly available, although a recent survey by the Marshall Project, which focuses on criminal-justice issues, estimated membership at about 400. That count likely underestimates support for the concept of the constitutional sheriff, according to that survey. It found that nearly half the interviewed sheriffs agreed with the statement that their authority exceeds that of the state and federal governments in their counties. More than two-thirds said they wouldn’t carry out state or federal laws they determined were “unjust.”
CSPOA membership appears to be growing, likely propelled by resistance to enforcing such pandemic-related mandates as masking and mandatory vaccinations. Many sheriffs have publicly said they would refuse to enforce new gun control laws recommended by President Biden. A handful have said they will investigate alleged 2020 voter fraud, spurred by former President Donald Trump’s false claim that victory was stolen from him.
Mack continues to push the myth. CSPOA joined with other election-deniers, including several sheriffs, to launch what they euphemistically call an “election integrity” initiative to uncover alleged past fraud and ostensibly to prevent it in the 2024 elections by overseeing polling sites.
Having uniformed law enforcement officers appear at polling places evokes images of police-state elections. Such action would put a North Carolina sheriff in conflict with state law, Attorney General Josh Stein told The Watchdog.
“Law enforcement can respond to active crime, but they cannot be in the voting precinct,” Stein, a Democratic candidate for governor, said in an interview.
The persistence of Mack’s belief in the unchecked power of the “constitutional sheriff” astonishes, frustrates, and frightens legal experts.
Said the ADL’s Pitcavage: “Every attorney, constitutional or otherwise, who has looked at the arguments of the constitutional sheriffs’ movement has said that they have no basis in law, in history or in fact. Those theories are derived from a long-defunct extremist group from the 1970s or 1980s. They’re pseudo law.”
Mary McCord, a former assistant deputy attorney general who now heads the Georgetown University Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, said on a 2022 panel about Mack’s claim: “That’s a made-up thing… The word ‘sheriff’ doesn’t appear in the U.S. Constitution. There’s no authority for a sheriff to say, ‘I’m the highest law of the land.’ “
According to scholars who study extremism, Edwards’ letter will likely add stature to Mack’s ideas.
“Endorsements like this are complementary to Mack’s perceived legitimacy,” said Amy Cooter, director of the Center on Terrorism, Extremism and Counterterrorism at the Middlebury Institute in Monterey, Calif.
Why would Edwards lend his backing to such a figure? Cooter said because it may “enhance [Edwards’ standing] among a base that generally approves of Mack and his reputation.” She said it also signals this group that Edwards shares Mack’s values.
For Mack, touting Edwards’ support – the first he says he has received from a member of Congress — could provide a major boost in his efforts to recruit other sheriffs in Edwards’ district and in the state. He told the Cherokee County audience he hopes to organize a national conference in coming months with 1,000 elected sheriffs, all imbued with the belief that they alone are the interpreters and enforcers of the law in their counties.
The key to hitting that target is to attract more law enforcement officers to attend CSPOA trainings by providing them incentives beyond coffee, a box lunch, and a Mack presentation on the powers of a constitutional sheriff. With help from sheriffs like Cherokee County’s Smith, CSPOA hopes to have its training accredited by state law-enforcement standards boards, enabling sheriffs and deputies to earn continuing-education credits toward promotion.
“The best way to get approval [for accreditation] is for a ‘friendly sheriff’ to submit the request” to the state, CSPOA administrator Tonya Benson wrote in a 2022 email to board members that was obtained by the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting.
Only Tennessee and Montana have approved CSPOA’s curriculum for continuing-education credit, according to Cooter. Notably, Texas last year withdrew its certification after determining Mack’s message was a political polemic, not technical police training.
With state accreditation, sheriffs and their deputies would more likely regard Mack’s claim of the sheriff’s supreme authority as credible. This misinformation contagion is a major concern of many anti-extremist organizations.
“Richard Mack and the CSPOA are actively trying to indoctrinate law enforcement officers, including senior law enforcement officers, with extremist ideas,” said Pitcavage, the ADL researcher.
“Through the guise of trainings, they’re getting sympathetic sheriffs to have their own officers attend [Mack’s sessions] that actively promote completely spurious ideas, like the idea that the sheriff can ignore any law or regulations from federal or state governments that they think are unconstitutional.”
Mack’s role in Brady lawsuit
Edwards isn’t alone in seeing Mack as a champion of the Second Amendment because of his role in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the 1993 Brady Gun Violence Act, which required gun buyers to pass a background check showing they had no criminal history.
Mack’s image as the heroic defender of the Second Amendment conflicts with the reality of the case. When the Brady Bill was enacted, a minor provision directed county sheriffs to conduct criminal background checks on gun purchasers until a federal system was built
The result was a partial victory for Mack, though not for the reasons he claims. On the CSPOA website, Mack contends the ruling “established that county Sheriffs have the authority and duty to enforce the constitution and to protect their citizens from the overreach of an out-of-control federal government.” It was, he says, “an epiphany” for him.
Several constitutional experts agree that the Supreme Court case had nothing to do with the Second Amendment, nor with a sheriff’s power to interpret the Constitution.
The majority opinion, written by Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, the most conservative member of the Court, focused on the little-known 10th Amendment. It limits the ability of federal authorities to impose mandates on state officials, including sheriffs.
Not only did the Supreme Court determine that background checks didn’t collide with the Second Amendment, it motivated Congress in 1998 to create the National Instant Criminal Background Check system lifting any burden from sheriffs for conducting them. Scalia’s opinion was a stinging defeat for the NRA.
This belies Edwards’ explanation for giving Mack the honors and for the line “you and your organization have been trailblazers for law enforcement organizations across the country.”
The letter’s deferential tone casts doubt on Edward’s claim to have been unaware of the controversies surrounding Mack. Mack’s role in the Brady Bill case vaulted him into the pantheon of the far-right nobility. He became a sought-after speaker at pro-gun, anti-government events; a Tea Party leader; and a friend of such far-right icons as Randy Weaver and Ammon Bundy who in separate incidents violently opposed federal authorities.
With the ruggedly handsome appearance of a western movie sheriff and the wit of an entertainer, Mack – always introduced as “Sheriff Mack” – had been a regular on the nationwide “Arise USA!” show that included 87 stops over the summer of 2021. Rolling Stone magazine said Mack’s role was to deliver a speech titled “The Importance of the American Sheriff.” He was among the marquee-level presenters who provided COVID vaccine conspiracy theories and lamented the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.
The tour’s director, Robert David Steele, was a well-known anti-Semite, anti-vaxxer, and Holocaust denier. He touted QAnon conspiracy theories and claimed that NASA maintained a colony on Mars where human slaves were imprisoned. Ironically, Steele died of the coronavirus – after dubbing the pandemic “a hoax” – during a tour stop in Jupiter, Fla.
In 1988, after a stint as a police officer in Utah, Mack was elected sheriff of Graham County. He served two terms as a Democrat but lost re-election in 1996, reportedly because voters had grown weary of his travels on behalf of the NRA and the lawsuit.
Those travels and the Brady Bill lawsuit rebranded him as a champion of gun rights and spokesman for the NRA. He remained drawn to politics and ran for Congress twice and the U.S. Senate once, losing each time.
He taught high school history and wrote or contributed to books aimed at right-wing audiences, including writing the foreword for one authored by Weaver, a white separatist whose family was killed by federal agents during a confrontation at Weaver’s ranch in Ruby Ridge, Idaho. (The federal government later paid Weaver $3.1 million in compensation for the deaths of his wife and son.)
In 2009, calling it “a match made in heaven,” Mack joined with Stewart Rhodes in organizing the Oath Keepers as an anti-government militia, though he quit the group five years later. Rhodes helped lead the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol and is serving a 20-year prison sentence for sedition.
Mack often and vehemently condemns violence, including the attack on the Capitol. He just as strongly bristles at suggestions that his connections to anti-Semites and white supremacists taint him with those ideologies.
Then in 2011, while serving on the board of the Oath Keepers, Mack decided he could use his background as a sheriff and his fame in gun-rights circles to create a conservative movement built on his “epiphany” about the all-powerful constitutional sheriff and his belief in posse comitatus, a concept — translated from Latin as the “power of the county — established in England centuries ago. He founded the CSPOA.
Unlike most law-enforcement organizations, the CSPOA is a for-profit venture, and its financial operations aren’t available to the public. Membership costs $99 a year. Its website is packed with advertisements for investment opportunities, books, and military-styled clothing. Although not tax deductible, CSPOA welcomes donations, especially in gold and silver.
CSPOA’s advisory board, which Mack heads, includes another controversial figure: Michael Peroutka. He was a founding member of the League of the South, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled a “neo-Confederate” group promoting racist ideology.
Mack’s successor as CEO of CSPOA and co-host of his podcast, is Sam Bushman, owner of the online radio network Liberty News. Bushman has been criticized by the SPLC for promoting racist and anti-Semitic programs on the network, and – like Mack — championing those who claim the 2020 election was rigged by Democrats.
The Watchdog emailed each elected sheriff in the 15 counties that comprise Edwards’ congressional district, as well as the leadership of the North Carolina Sheriffs Association. We requested replies to two questions: “1). Are you familiar with CSPOA and do you agree, disagree or have no opinion on its objectives? 2). Will Congressman Edwards’ strong endorsement of CSPOA and Mr. Mack incline you toward supporting the “constitutional sheriffs” movement?”
Only one sheriff bothered to reply, though he said he “had more important things to do” than answer the questions.
Charles Blackwood, sheriff of Orange County and past president of the state association, said there was no policy on “what individual sheriffs do or how they decide to run their offices unless and until their actions are detrimental to the integrity of the office as a whole.”
Attorney General Stein, whose office provides support services for the county sheriffs, said he hadn’t seen CSPOA efforts to recruit North Carolina sheriffs or to seek accreditation for its trainings.
But he said he was certain of this: “The sheriff has to enforce the law and they can’t conclude they have higher authority to interpret the Constitution than our courts do. If that’s their belief, they’re wrong.”
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Tom Fiedler is a Pulitzer Prize-winning political reporter and former executive editor of The Miami Herald. Email email@example.com. To show your support for this vital public service go to avlwatchdog.org/donate.