AUGUSTA, Maine — An expert on anti-government extremists said the controversial group that met with Gov. Paul LePage eight times last year should not be considered terrorists, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worrisome.
The Constitutional Coalition is a group of right-wing activists and conspiracy theorists that believes many of Maine’s laws are illegal, that several high-ranking political officials are guilty of treason, that lawyers are agents of foreign governments and that the Maine State Bar Association has infiltrated the government for its own sinister ends.
Liberal activist and blogger Mike Tipping investigated the group for months as part of the research for a new book he’s written about LePage, and he revealed earlier this week that the group had met with the governor for more than a dozen hours over the course of several meetings last year.
In his writing, Tipping associated the group with the Sovereign Citizens Movement, a name used to describe hundreds of thousands of Americans who share similar radical, conspiratorial beliefs — namely, that the U.S. government was secretly overtaken by sinister forces, rendering it nonauthoritative, and that individuals can use clever legal tricks to declare themselves “sovereign,” and thus immune from the laws and government they see as illegitimate.
Mark Pitcavage is the director of investigative research for the Anti-Defamation League, a nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting hate groups. He’s been following the story developing in Maine and said that while members of the Constitutional Coalition hold “degrees of Sovereign Citizen ideology,” he’s hesitant to label the whole group as such.
“I don’t believe all of them are Sovereign Citizens,” he said Thursday. “They’re absolutely anti-government extremists, and it would probably be fair to label them as part of the Patriot Movement, which is a term for a large class of anti-government extremists who believe in conspiracy theories.”
Pitcavage also said that while the Patriot Movement has a vivid history of violent activities, members should not be described as terrorists by default.
He said while three main branches of the Patriot Movement — Sovereign Citizens, the militia movement and the tax-protester movement — have strong connections to criminal activity and violence, that doesn’t necessarily mean every group associated with those movements will necessarily engage in criminal activity.
“Most of the people in any extremist movement are not going to be violent,” he said. “But, you can never predict future behavior for people who are members of these groups.”
In documents provided to the governor before their meetings, the Constitutional Coalition made reference to “1776 and 1865” solutions to the perceived abuses of the government.
“What possible alternative do the people now have, other than to take up arms … ?” they wrote.
In a radio show, during which he recapped the meetings with the governor, Coalition member Jack McCarthy also said the group discussed hanging members of the government for treason.
Other members of the group — including Paul Merletti and Wayne Leach, who spoke with the BDN on Wednesday — said those conversations never happened. LePage also has said that he never discussed acts of violence with the group.
Merletti and Leach also distanced themselves from the phrase “sovereign citizens,” though they did complain about Maine Department of Public Safety training documents that described the group as a potential threat.
Leach said that he does believe many of Maine’s laws and amendments to the state Constitution are illegal, and thus don’t apply to him.
“The ones that are invalid, they do not apply,” he said. “But I don’t go out and disobey them, because I can’t afford to defend myself.”
Pitcavage said that while it’s important not to jump to conclusions about members of any extremist factions, it also is likely that once they are publicly linked with violent groups or ideologies, they will be “on their best behavior” and attempt to tone down their rhetoric or conceal their true beliefs.
On Thursday, LePage’s office put out a statement defending the Constitutional Coalition from any association with terrorism, while also downplaying any ideological overlap with the radical group.
“The governor has a keen interest in the Constitution,” the statement read. “Members of this group have stated that the governor was not constitutional enough for them. … The governor and the group did not see eye to eye.”
Merletti also said that his group and the governor had come to an impasse: He told the BDN on Wednesday that the Constitutional Coalition had given up speaking with LePage because he had become too dependent on the views of his lawyers, who had advised him that the coalition’s many requests were frivolous.
LePage has come under criticism from some lawmakers and political opponents for meeting with the coalition so many times, rather than dismissing them after an initial meeting.
In the statement Thursday, the governor’s office said LePage regularly meets Mainers with whom he disagrees, and he continued meeting with the group because they continued to request meetings.
“The governor has an open-door policy with Mainers because he believes a healthy democracy requires public officials to hear all varying viewpoints from the people of Maine,” the statement read. “Here, the group continued to request meetings and, in line with his open door policy, he agreed.”
Rep. Jeff Evangelos, I-Friendship, said Wednesday that by spending so much time with the group, the governor legitimized its extremist views. He also requested the attorney general investigate the meetings to determine whether any violent conduct was discussed.
On Thursday evening, the state attorney general’s office said there are no plans to investigate the meetings.
“Members of the Executive Protection Unit, who are sworn law enforcement officers, were present for any meetings between the governor and any so-called ‘sovereign citizens’ during the governor’s Saturday morning open meetings,” said Rosemarie Smith, executive assistant to the attorney general. “Given that, and given the fact that no action was taken by law enforcement at the time, there does not appear to be cause for this office to initiate an investigation. If other facts become known, of course, our door will remain open.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.
Correction: In a previous version of this story, Mark Pitcavage's name was misspelled.