CATSKILL — As arrests from the attempted insurrection at the Capitol continue, links are being made between the rioters and an extremist group called the Oath Keepers, a far-right, anti-government, militia organization that named former Greene County Sheriff Greg Seeley the New York Constitutional Sheriff in 2017.
More than 300 people, including William Tryon, of Selkirk, have been charged with crimes in connection with the events of Jan. 6. Investigators identified more than 540 suspects and more arrests are anticipated.
Nine of those arrested had links to the Oath Keepers, one of the largest anti-government groups in the nation, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
Seeley received the Oath Keepers’ NY Constitutional Sheriff Award in 2017 while he was Greene County’s sheriff, and was a guest speaker at the group’s awards dinner, which was held in Albany.
“Sheriff Seeley has been a strong supporter of the New York Oath Keepers since we were formed in 2009,” according to a June 8, 2017 New York Oath Keepers press release posted on the oathkeepers.org website.
Oath Keeper leader John Mahoney, who represents Greene, Orange, Rockland, Sullivan and Ulster counties, could not be reached for comment about Seeley’s membership. Seeley did not respond to requests for comment.
Eight chapters of the Oath Keepers exist in upstate New York and there is a New York City Chapter. The group was founded in 2009, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The Anti-Defamation League estimates that Oath Keepers have from 1,000 to 3,000 members.
The Oath Keepers’ membership is primarily military and law enforcement, according to the organization’s website.
“Our mission is to reach, teach and inspire all who have taken an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, particularly military and law enforcement officers, to encourage and insist that they honor their oath to the U.S. Constitution,” according to the Oath Keepers website. “We remind all to remain true to that oath which requires them to obey only valid orders that do not violate the Constitution of the United States.”
Affiliations with radical groups should be examined when it comes to hiring law enforcement, said the Rev. Richard Turpin, who served as a member of the Greene County Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative.
“I think all candidates for law enforcement should be screened if they are going to be given a weapon to protect and serve,” he said. “I’m almost sure if an African-American male or female was to apply for a state trooper’s job, and they were known to be in the Black Panther party, that they would be questioned about that. Or, if one were to be known as a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and they applied for a state trooper’s job or a sheriff’s job, I would hope that would come up as well and be investigated.”
Greene County Legislator and former Public Safety Chairman William Lawrence, R-Cairo, emphasized examining people as individuals.
“People belong to a lot of groups but that doesn’t mean they go down to Washington, D.C., and go crazy and break into buildings,” he said. “Everything that people do, whether at a protest or in life, they do as an individual.”
There was a disparity between the way the events at the Capitol and the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer of 2020 were portrayed, Lawrence said.
“They were sort of diminished in terms of this one in January,” he said. “To me, it was the same thing — people were upset about the government, they took it out by marching, not everybody broke into those buildings. It should be a comparison of apples to apples, which I don’t think was done in that case.”
Lawrence used the National Rifle Association as an example.
Some groups that are labeled as extremist organizations by one person may not be viewed that way by another, Lawrence said.
“Being a member of the NRA, which has been called an extremist group, doesn’t mean they’re an extremist,” he said. “People, when they’re younger, are part of groups they may later on regret. Holding that against them now when they’ve reached adulthood is not something I consider to be an absolute when hiring a person.”
A candidate should be hired based on qualifications, Lawrence said.
“I don’t want to see any type of political screen to get a person hired for a job in government,” he said. “Their background does have to be checked for anything they may have done illegally and that has to be weighed in terms of the age of the person when they did it and what they’re like now.”
Affiliations of applicants to the Greene County Sheriff’s Office are screened, county Sheriff Pete Kusminsky said.
Greene County Legislature Chairman Patrick Linger, R-New Baltimore, said the rights of applicants as citizens need to be considered, as well.
“Anybody has the right to be affiliated with what they want,” he said. “A police officer needs to be held to a bit of a higher standard, but they still have rights as Americans, as citizens. They can believe what they want to believe and join whatever groups they want to join. They are paid to do a job. If there’s anything that hinders your ability to do that job, any employer would be looking to not employ them.”
As sheriff, Seeley was elected to the position, not hired by the county, Linger said. Seeley served as Greene County sheriff for 12 years from 2007-19.