By Linda So and Sarah N. Lynch
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. Justice Department on Friday announced it has charged a Texas man with making violent threats against Georgia election and government officials. The indictment marked the first case brought by a federal task force formed in response to a wave of intimidation that has engulfed election administrators since the 2020 presidential vote.
The matter is one of “dozens” of such cases under federal investigation, said Kenneth A. Polite Jr., the assistant attorney general for the department’s criminal division.
The election threats task force was announced last June, shortly after Reuters published the first in a series of investigative reports that have documented more than 850 threats and menacing messages to U.S. election workers. This campaign of fear has been carried out by supporters of former President Donald Trump who embrace his false claims that he lost the election because of widespread voter fraud.
Polite said the Justice Department had also analyzed more than 850 reports of threats to local election officials.
The indictment alleges that Chad Christopher Stark of Leander, Texas, posted a Craigslist message on January 5, 2021 entitled, “Georgia Patriots it’s time to kill.”
"It's time for us to take back our state from these Lawless treasonous traitors," he wrote, calling one of the Georgia officials a “Chinese agent.” "It's time to invoke our Second Amendment right” and “put a bullet in the treasonous Chinese” official.
Stark could not immediately be reached for comment on Friday. He was scheduled to make his initial appearance at the federal courthouse in Austin, Texas, at 1:30 p.m. CST in front of U.S. Magistrate Judge Susan Hightower.
The indictment said Stark threatened at least three Georgia officials but did not identify them. A source familiar with the investigation into Stark told Reuters that two of the officials were Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and Governor Brian Kemp.
Both Raffensperger and Kemp are Republicans who defended the integrity of the Georgia election despite intense pressure from Trump, who in January 2021 called Raffensperger and told him to “find” enough votes to overturn his loss.
“I strongly condemn threats against election workers and those who volunteer in elections,” Raffensperger said in a statement to Reuters on Friday. “We need to support and protect our local election officials and volunteers now more than ever.”
Raffensperger’s wife Tricia also received a wave of death threats that Reuters documented in its June report. Election workers in Georgia faced an onslaught of menacing messages following the 2020 vote as Trump and his allies sought to overturn election results in the state.
Reuters also spotlighted threats of lynching and racist taunts against Georgia election worker Ruby Freeman and her daughter, Wandrea “Shaye” Moss. Both received a deluge of hate after they were falsely accused of fraud by Trump himself. A senior member of the Trump campaign confirmed to Reuters that he participated in a bizarre attempt to pressure Freeman to falsely admit voting fraud, Reuters reported.
Trump is facing a criminal investigation by the district attorney in Fulton County, which includes part of Atlanta, into alleged election interference in Georgia.
U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland on Friday emphasized the importance of protecting election officials from threats during a speech before the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
"An important part of keeping the American people safe is protecting those who serve the public from violence and unlawful threats of violence," he said. "There is no First Amendment right to unlawfully threaten to harm or kill someone.”
Polite, the assistant attorney general, called the officials being threatened “the backbone of our electoral system,” made up of “ordinary people from across the political spectrum.”
Federal officials declined to elaborate on Polite’s statement about “dozens” of open investigations into election threats. Sources familiar with two such investigations have told Reuters that the FBI is probing the cases in response to the news organization’s reports about them. One involves Gjurgi Juncaj, who threatened a Nevada election official whose ordeal was highlighted in a Reuters report in September. Another targets an anonymous man who threatened Vermont officials and was featured in a November Reuters investigation.
In a previous interview with Reuters, Juncaj said he had done nothing wrong and “didn’t threaten anybody.” He could not immediately be reached for comment on Friday.
The indictment by the task force is only the second known federal charge for threatening election workers since the 2020 vote. In December 2020, federal prosecutors charged a New Hampshire woman with threatening a Michigan official.
The task force’s indictment of Stark “sends a critical message that threatening an election official or worker will be treated as a threat to our democracy,” said Matt Masterson, a Republican who ran election security at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security between 2018 to 2020.
Luis Quesada, an assistant director with the criminal division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, said “the right to vote is a cornerstone of American democracy.”
“Threats targeting the officials and frontline workers who do the critical work of administering free and fair elections in the United States undermines this vital right," he said.
(Reporting by Linda So and Sarah N. Lynch; editing by Andy Sullivan and Brian Thevenot)