Sheriff Chad Bianco, of Riverside County, California, has admitted he was a dues-paying member of the extremist Oath Keeper militia in 2014, when he served as a lieutenant in the department. “I’m not ashamed,” he told reporters with the Southern California News Group.
Bianco — a bombastic figure who recently billed himself as “the last line of defense from tyrannical government overreach” — was elected Sheriff in 2018 and is the top law enforcement officer in the fourth most populous county in California, and 10th most populous in the country. The county extends east from Los Angeles, encompassing the city of Riverside, as well as Palm Springs and Joshua Tree National Park. The mayor of Palm Springs has called on Bianco to resign: “The Sheriff’s association with this group is offensive to all those who believe in American democracy,” tweeted Christy Gilbert Holstege. “He should resign immediately. The people of Riverside County deserve better.”
Bianco’s past membership in the Oath Keepers was made public by JJ MacNab, a fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, in a tweet on Tuesday. MacNab discovered Bianco’s affiliation in a massive trove of hacked Oath Keeper data, including membership rolls and email correspondence, posted by the nonprofit transparency group Distributed Denial of Secrets, or DDoSecrets. The Oath Keepers are described as “one of the largest far-right antigovernment groups” in the country, with “a long history of engaging in and promoting their own form of vigilante justice,” by the Southern Poverty Law Center. (Read Rolling Stone‘s explainer on the group, which recruits from law enforcement and the military, and whose members were active in storming the Capitol on January 6th, here.)
Bianco, in his interview with SCNG reporters, was matter of fact about his past affiliation with the militia: “I found an email from 2014 where I joined for a year,” he said. “I don’t even remember it. It was an email saying, ‘Thank you for joining.’ I paid for a year’s membership.” Bianco distanced himself from the Oath Keepers who participated in the January 6th insurrection, insisting he’s been “vocally against what happened there,” while adding that breaching the halls of Congress “was completely wrong and against the law, and they should be held accountable for it.” At the same time, Bianco took issue with the FBI’s description of the Oath Keepers as an “anti-government militia,” asking the reporters: “Why was this not done with Antifa and Black Lives Matter?”
In a separate statement to the Desert Sun newspaper, Bianco seemed to recall more details about his membership. “Like many other law enforcement officers and veterans who were members,” he said, “I learned the group did not offer me anything and so I did not continue membership.” He added: “My oath is to the Constitution and laws of the land and to the people of Riverside County, who I am sworn to protect.” The Riverside Sheriff’s Department did not respond to a request for comment.
Though he says he’s no longer a member of the militia, Bianco’s politics remain anti-government, particularly when it comes to Covid restrictions and vaccine mandates in the interest of public health. “The government has no ability and no authority to mandate your health choices,” he said in a recent podcast. Calling himself the guardian of “your liberty and freedom” Bianco said he thought of the sheriff’s office as “the last line of defense from tyrannical government overreach.”