Oath Keepers: South Dakota Legislator on Militia's Leaked Member Rolls - Rolling Stone
×
×
Home Politics Politics Features

He’s South Dakota’s ‘Most Conservative Lawmaker.’ Is He Also an Oath Keeper?

Phil Jensen stirs controversy in the state Legislature. His name also appears in the leaked alleged membership rolls of a notorious militia group 

Phil Jensen SD Representative District 33

Phil Jensen SD Representative District 33/Facebook

Phil Jensen has long courted controversy. As a state senator in South Dakota in 2014, he sponsored a bill, SB 128, that would have greenlighted discrimination against LGBTQ people by enabling state businesses to turn away customers, and even fire employees, on the basis of sexual orientation.

The measure failed — and even a fellow Republican blasted it as “a mean, nasty, hateful, vindictive bill.” In an interview with the Rapid City Journal, Jensen insisted the bill was a defense of “free speech and private-property rights.” He then doubled down, arguing the free market should be relied on to counter discrimination: “If someone was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and they were running a little bakery for instance,” he said, “the majority of us would find it detestable that they refuse to serve Blacks, and guess what? In a matter of weeks or so that business would shut down because no one is going to patronize them.” (This remark drew a rebuke from the state’s then-governor: “I found his comments to be completely out of line with South Dakota values,” said Republican Dennis Daugaard.) 

In light of this controversy, the Rapid City newspaper ran a headline touting Jensen as “South Dakota’s most conservative lawmaker.” That same year, it appears, Jensen added another appellation to his political résumé: Oath Keeper. 

The Oath Keepers are an extremist militia group that challenges the authority of the federal government. The organization asks its members to swear to a 10-point oath, steeped in conspiratorial thinking, insisting they’ll stand up against government tyranny that the group imagines is fast approaching. The points start out fairly benign: “1. We will NOT obey any order to disarm the American people.” But they quickly lose contact with reality, as in point 6: “We will NOT obey any order to blockade American cities, thus turning them into giant concentration camps.” The group’s members often show up as armed vigilantes in times of strife, notably at the 2014 standoff at the Bundy Ranch and during unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. Nearly two dozen of the group’s members have been indicted for involvement in the January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. 

In recent weeks, a transparency group called Distributed Denial of Secrets released a huge trove of purported Oath Keeper records, emails, and chat logs. The group provided Rolling Stone access to a database of membership records of more than 38,000 alleged Oath Keepers. Other media outlets, reporting on the same purported membership rolls — including USA Today, Oregon Public Broadcasting, and The Gothamist — have identified dozens of Oath Keeper members of the military and law enforcement. Many of those identified have admitted to their affiliation with the group, with some clarifying they are no longer active members. The Oath Keepers did not respond to questions about the leak.

Emma Best, a co-founder of Distributed Denial of Secrets, says the data was provided to the group by a hacker. DDoSecrets was able to run a technical analysis of the data dump, which the group found as “persuasive” that the information was legitimate. “In short, everything was there that you’d expect,” DDoSecrets says. “The pieces all fit together, and there was far too much data that was far too detailed for it to have been faked.”

The vast majority of alleged Oath Keepers in these rolls signed up with private emails and without any details that would readily identify their employers. The record for Jensen is markedly different. It lists a state legislative email address, and his name appears with his honorific at the time, “Senator Phil Jensen.” (Jensen has served in both chambers of the state Legislature; he is currently representative of District 33, which includes part of Rapid City.) The record appears to show that Jensen signed up for an annual membership in 2014; the database does not indicate his current membership status. 

Jensen did not respond to phone and email requests to discuss his appearance on the alleged Oath Keeper rolls or his current affiliation with the group (UPDATE: Jensen has responded to Rolling Stone‘s reporting, telling local news station KEVN that he signed up with the Oath Keepers in 2014. The legislator said he was not active with the group, but saw nothing to be ashamed of in the affiliation, adding he believes the group has been unfairly maligned.)

Jensen is not the only elected official to appear in the purported militia rolls. Wendy Rogers is a far-right-wing Arizona state senator and an ardent Trump supporter who has hyped the lie that Trump was robbed of electoral victory in the 2020 election in Arizona. Rogers’ information appears in the leaked database, and she has not been at all shy about her affiliation with the group, tweeting, “I really like their dedication to our Constitution and to our country.”

 

 

The name of another Arizona politician, Jeff Serdy, a supervisor for Pinal County, also appears on the leaked database. In an email to Rolling Stone, Serdy confirmed that he joined the Oath Keepers and paid annual dues more than a decade ago. He said he became interested in the group after Hurricane Katrina, when some citizens of New Orleans had their guns confiscated by local police. Serdy insists he’s never attended an Oath Keepers meeting, but adds: “In theory, every person that takes the oath to uphold the Constitution should in fact be an Oath Keeper.” Serdy distances himself from the Oath Keepers’ recent activities, blaming the militia’s founder, Stewart Rhodes, for having taken “the group into a direction that sabotages the original intent.” In addition to his public service, Serdy owns what he calls “one of the highest-volume gun shops in the state.”

Alex Friedfeld is an investigative researcher at the Center on Extremism, a project of the Anti-Defamation League, who has studied the militia group for years. The Oath Keepers’ power, he says, mainly comes from recruiting people with guns, or people in law enforcement. “But we’re increasingly seeing current and former members of public office that are Oath Keepers,” he says. There’s some irony, Friedfeld notes, in government figures signing on with an anti-government extremist group. And while joining the Oath Keepers isn’t illegal, it is “really concerning,” Friedfeld says, adding of lawmaker members: “They have had a hand in shaping laws in a way that accords with their extremist agenda. It has real impacts on ordinary people’s lives.”  

Jensen does not appear to have moderated his political orientation in recent years. He has denounced Covid-19 public-health policies like mask requirements. And in a challenge to federal authority, he recently signed on to a resolution “urging the overruling of any attempt by the Biden administration to implement a nationwide Covid-19 vaccine or testing mandate on business.” 

In a February opinion piece for the Rapid City Journal, Jensen advanced notions cut from the same ideological cloth as the Oath Keepers: “We have come to a time in history where we are seeing the constitutional rights this country was founded on cast aside in the name of safety,” he warned. “We are seeing resolutions, rules and mandates, presented, passed and executed that undermine our inalienable rights.” Jensen inveighed against “coercion and force … being called upon once again to legislate our compliance.”

Jensen doesn’t keep a typical website. PhilJensenSD.com doesn’t offer any information other than an invitation to join his mailing list. The introductory note rails against “incredible censorship on social media” and “the unprecedented cancel culture,” adding that “it is imperative that I am able to speak truth to you directly by e-mail each week.” 

“I want to take you with me inside your government and give you truth,” Jensen writes, “unfiltered by media companies or even political party leaders. … Liberty is at stake,” he warns, and “Freedom isn’t free.” 

 

In This Article: Oath Keepers, South Dakota

Newswire

Powered by
Arrow Created with Sketch. Calendar Created with Sketch. Path Created with Sketch. Shape Created with Sketch. Plus Created with Sketch. minus Created with Sketch.