El Paso County Republicans have been sounding the alarm over plans by the party's embattled chair to engage a group of armed volunteers to provide security at the county GOP's meeting Saturday, when hundreds of Republicans are expected to gather at a Colorado Springs church to elect party officers.
The head of the United American Defense Force, however, said Tuesday that El Paso County GOP chair Vickie Tonkins had no business saying the group would be involved with the political party and could have exposed his organization to legal jeopardy.
"I don't know what they’re doing, but it seems the GOP is totally screwed up and they’re using our organization as a tool to do something, and I don’t like it," John "Tig" Tiegen, the founder and president of UADF, told Colorado Politics.
Tonkins said in an email to Colorado Politics that her notice that UADF would serve as sergeant-at-arms at Saturday's election — prompting complaints from local Republicans that she had enlisted an "armed militia" to patrol the meeting — had been "tentative and subject to change" and called the whole fuss a "non-story."
Meanwhile, local Republican leaders say they're concerned Tonkins has been stacking the deck in favor of her own re-election by improperly adding newcomers — including Democrats and unaffiliated voters — to the party's central committee list.
When state Rep. Tim Geitner, R-Colorado Springs, and party volunteers showed up to examine documents related to the list on Jan. 30 at party headquarters, the county party treasurer, John Pitchford, called police, claiming the lawmaker and volunteers were trespassing.
No charges were filed — the investigating officer determined no crime had been committed — but the incident is only the latest controversy to rock the county GOP, still reeling after El Paso County voters delivered the worst results for a Republican presidential candidate in more than half a century.
As Saturday's chair election approaches between Tonkins and challenger Peggy Littleton, a former county commissioner and member of the State Board of Education, county GOP stalwarts say they're worried the party election won't be conducted fairly, while supporters of Tonkins claim the old guard will stop at nothing to maintain control over a party they've long treated as their personal property.
"It appears to be an attempt to steal the election, and it’s my hope that saner heads will prevail," Colorado Springs City Councilman Wayne Williams, a former Colorado secretary of state, told Colorado Politics.
Tonkins rebuffed suggestions the upcoming party election would be conducted improperly in any way.
"All eligible members will be properly credentialed and seated for the meeting," she said in an email.
The party’s central committee — made up of precinct leaders, district officers and elected officials — meets in odd-numbered years to elect the county GOP's chair, vice chair and secretary to two-year terms.
Enlisting precinct leaders
The recent brouhaha began to take shape on Jan. 24, when an organization affiliated with UADF, conservative political group FEC United — the initials stand for community pillars faith, education and commerce — distributed a message urging members to enlist as precinct leaders ahead of El Paso County GOP's Feb. 6 reorganization meeting "to help us clean up the local Republican Party and help preserve the Republic!"
At the meeting, the post said, "we have the opportunity to vote out the corrupt RINOs, install anti-corruption / pro-Constitution leadership," using a common acronym for "Republicans in Name Only." The post said Tonkins and Pitchford, the appointed treasurer, "have led the charge for the past 2 years in the El Paso County GOP!" and urged those interested to go to county GOP headquarters that afternoon to fill positions.
A Colorado Springs Republican and FEC member who attended the meeting and asked not to be identified due to safety concerns said Tonkins and Pitchford "pulled individual after individual into the office and signed them up for precinct leader positions all day."
Pitchford declined to comment.
As word got around that Tonkins was adding members to the central committee ahead of the party officer elections, some El Paso County officers and executive committee members cried foul, maintaining that party bylaws require at least two elected county officers to sign off on vacancy appointments. The other two elected officers — the vice-chair and secretary — said they hadn't been involved in filling any vacancies with Tonkins. (Pitchford, who fills an appointed position, isn't eligible to sign off on vacancy appointments, according to party bylaws.)
"While I appreciate you trying to get volunteers to sign up, your approach in reaching to outside groups like FEC using party resources to control the outcome of an upcoming election is illegal and a misuse of county resources!" El Paso County GOP vice chair Wendy Miller wrote Tonkins in an email obtained by Colorado Politics. "This is not an equal playing field for the other candidates that are competing."
Williams, who oversaw statewide elections as secretary of state and ran El Paso County elections during a term as county clerk, said he was concerned that Tonkins was appointing precinct leader and other central committee members contrary to the rules.
"She has this interesting view that everyone’s out to get her," he said. "The Republican Party has never gone with the executive-order strategy of universal fiats. Unfortunately, our current chair is behaving like Mr. Biden and trying to issue rules and procedures regardless of what the bylaws provide."
Williams added that he anticipates there will probably be "some procedural votes to make sure the meeting is conducted fairly and honestly."
Littleton told Colorado Politics she hopes the county chair election will run smoothly.
"I believe that we need to have more unity and go in a direction that will lead our local politics in a manner that will be really, really inclusive — making sure we invite everybody in, whether it be an unaffiliated person or people who are disgruntled with the party and frustrated with what’s happened nationwide," she said.
"I am running because I believe in election integrity, I believe in transparency and fiscal accountability. We have to stand up and fight for those things — respect, collaboration, trust. I believe my background lends itself for being that trusted person."
A "militia" move
Late last week, Tonkins issued an agenda labeled "updated - tentative" for the Feb. 6 reorganization that listed UADF as the meeting's sergeant-at-arms.
"[I]t's my understanding that our county chair will have armed militia at our central committee meeting," a member of the county party's executive committee wrote to U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, the state GOP chair, in an email obtained by Colorado Politics.
"This is an attempt at causing fear, intimidation and voter suppression. This is NOT what Republicans are about. I can imagine the turnout will be reduced because people will not want to attend an event guarded by the militia hired/solicited by our chair, one of the county chair candidates."
Appealing to Buck for help, the executive committee member added: "This is potentially a disaster. Do we really want our name dragged through the local mud, again?"
Another member of the executive committee, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation, told Colorado Politics that Tonkins has been riling her supporters into a frenzy by linking her re-election as chair to unfounded concerns widely shared by Republicans that the 2020 presidential election was riddled with fraud.
"Vickie has been saying she’s going to use her opportunity as chair to push out Dominion and clean up the voter rolls, none of which are party duties, but I think she’s definitely trying to whip up some anger," the executive committee member said, referring to Dominion Voting Systems. The Denver-based voting equipment manufacturer is suing Trump lawyers Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani for $1.3 billion apiece, claiming defamation over baseless claims they made about the company's role in the 2020 election.
"I’m very fearful that the combination of having that militia group there and having the rhetoric we’re seeing could turn ugly," the GOP official said. "We’ve got people super-intimidated, people calling saying, 'Is this going to be safe?' People are going to be wearing bullet-proof vests to the party meeting. This goes beyond party squabbles. This isn’t party squabbles."
Seeking the state party's help
Over the weekend, tensions mounted.
El Paso County Commissioner Carrie Geitner, a member of the county party executive committee and a veteran of clashes with Tonkins, said she called Buck on the afternoon of Jan. 30 to describe the brewing situation and ask for his help.
"I asked Ken Buck to intervene, assure the central committee that their votes would be counted, and the process would be aboveboard. He answered by hanging up the phone on me and turning his back on us all," Geitner told Colorado Politics in a text message. "It is up to the elected officials in this county to get our house put back in order. Leaders must stand up and do what is right for the future of the Republican Party."
Lx Fangonilo, executive director of the Colorado GOP, told Colorado Politics on Tuesday that the state party can't get involved with the county party's election the way some Republicans have requested.
"Ultimately, the state party, frankly, doesn’t have authority to get involved until a party controversy is filed," he said, referring to a formal complaint about party proceedings that can be considered by a state GOP governing board. "Ideally, these things can be handled at the local level. Get along, work it out, please handle it locally."
Joe Oltmann, a founder of FEC United, took Tonkins' critics to task early Sunday morning in a lengthy response to an email sent by more than a dozen elected officials and party leaders.
Characterizing the email critical of Tonkins as a "hit piece," Oltmann wrote: "I am just trying to figure out if you are truly wanting to unite and grow the GOP, or destroy it. For the life of me, I cannot imagine a more disgraceful thing to do than what you are doing to Vickie, all because she will not fall in line behind frankly, a tired and largely dishonest group faction in the [S]prings."
"You are wondering why people are running away from the Republican party?" Oltmann continued. "Take a look in the mirror. I’m not walking away from supporting Vickie because Colorado Springs and Colorado needs Vickie. They need diversity and inclusion, something many of you know zero about. If you want to unite the community? Stop eating your own and start acting with some semblance of integrity."
Oltmann is facing a defamation lawsuit filed by Eric Coomer, Dominion's director of product security and strategy, who went into hiding after the election following threats he's received after Oltmann claimed that the executive had a hand in fixing the election. Coomer is also suing the Trump campaign, Trump attorneys Giuliani and Powell, conservative personality Michelle Malkin and news outlets One America News Network and Newsmax Media.
Williams spelled out why some Republicans were bothered by Oltmann's stance and possible involvement with the election's security.
"Given that FEC’s chair has strongly come out on one side, the sergeant-at-arms' appearance of neutrality is absolutely not here," Williams said. "There is no neutrality in the sergeant-at-arms when they’re endorsing and sending out emails in the middle of the night to attack Republicans who do not agree with their choice."
Tiegen, the author and survivor of the 2012 Benghazi attack who runs UADF, told Colorado Politics the concern was moot because the organization had never planned to participate in the party meeting.
"I don’t even know who Vickie is," he said. "We’ve never been in contact with the GOP for doing anything."
He added that his organization was "totally blindsided" when he read a report late Monday night about his group's supposed role in the upcoming county GOP election.
"We’re just here to stand up and protect the community," he said. "What the GOP did to our organization put us in a legal bind, saying we’re going to provide security when we aren’t a licensed security organization. They threw us under the bus. They said something that isn’t true."
Via email, Tonkins brushed aside a question about the document she distributed listing UADF's participation.
"The request was made through Joe Oltmann and the information we put out initially was tentative and subject to change but UADF ultimately declined our request," she said. "This is a non-story."
Oltmann agreed in an email Tuesday that the group wouldn't be involved with the party meeting. Tonkins, he said, had asked if his group could "provide a safety team because of a credible threat of Antifa. She also stated that she did not want to tell everyone about the credible threat because if they did not show up they would be accused of voter suppression."
"The petty nature of all of it shows me exactly why our country is in trouble. The simple lack of maturity is astounding," he said. "We have better things to do with our time. I think the real pandemic levels of children committing suicide, education indoctrination by radical leftists and the destruction of the pillars (faith, education and commerce) of our community are much better things to concentrate our efforts on. Don’t you?"
Gazette reporter Mary Shinn contributed to this report.