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Cape May County investigating antigovernment group’s use of public property
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Cape May County investigating antigovernment group’s use of public property

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CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — Among the tangled mix of QAnon images and Confederate, Trump and Gadsden flags emblazoned with “Don’t Tread on Me” carried or worn during the Capitol riots in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6 were multiple “Oath Keepers” patches, often with a chapter location.

One of those chapters meets in Cape May County, on county-owned property. One former resident wants to know why.

At the Tuesday meeting of the Cape May County Board of Commissioners, the lone public speaker questioned the county’s policy on allowing groups space to meet.

Ben Saracco pointed to use of the Old Court House building in Middle Township by the Oath Keepers.

Both the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center have raised red flags about the organization, with the SPLC citing its espousal of far-right conspiracy theories, while the ADL describes it as a loose collection of antigovernment extremists. The group describes itself as a peaceful organization. The oath the name references is the one sworn by members of the military and police to protect and uphold the Constitution.

Saracco described them as “a domestic terrorist group” and asked about its use of the building, which he said has been going on “for years.”

Gerald Thornton, the director of the all-Republican board, said he had never heard of the organization before receiving an email from Saracco before the meeting.

Saracco also questioned the participation of the former Cape May County administrator in a meeting of the group, as reported in the Cape May County Herald in February 2014.

Michael Donohue, the chairman of Cape May County’s Republican organization, who also served as county administrator for close to a year before being replaced by Kevin Lare this month, was at the group’s first meeting in the county.

Donohue, who attended the county commissioners meeting, told the governing body he barely remembers the Oath Keepers event. An attorney who also served as Superior Court judge, Donohue said members of the newly formed chapter wanted to talk about the Constitution. He said he is not a member of the group and never attended another meeting. In public comments since Jan. 6, Donohue has forcefully denounced the riots in the nation’s capital but has also argued they should not be used as an excuse to silence conservative voices.

At the commissioners meeting, Donohue added that former Middle Township Mayor Michael Clark, a Democrat, was also in attendance in 2014. Both are listed in the news story from the time.

Clark said he does not remember the meeting at all.

“If it said that I was there, I’m sure that I was there,” Clark said when contacted after the commissioners meeting. He said some of the names identified as members in the story were in a volunteer fire company with him, suggesting they may have invited him.

Saracco grew up in Cape May County. In his written comment, he said he understands that the county cannot play favorites but questioned allowing what he described as an extremist organization to use public property, accusing the organization of being involved in domestic terrorism.

“The only response that I can give right now is that we have many groups that we allow to use the county facilities when they want to have a public meeting,” said Thornton. “We’ll look into it and check this group and see what their philosophy is.”

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County attorney Jeffrey Lindsay advised county commissioners against commenting further in public. Lindsay did not respond immediately to a call and an email with questions about the process for applying to use the Old Court House, a historic building at 9 N. Main St. that is best known as the site of political debates. The building dates to 1850.

While the distinctive patch of the Oath Keepers can be seen in multiple images of the rally in Washington, held in objection to the congressional certification of Joe Biden as the winner of the presidential election, none can be seen among the cache of images released by the FBI of suspects who stormed the Capitol building that day.

On Wednesday, Donald J. Trump became the first president to be impeached twice, as the House of Representatives accused him of inciting the violent insurrection that left five people dead, including an officer of the Capitol Police. The Senate is not expected to vote on the article of impeachment until after Biden is sworn in Jan. 20.

Trump has falsely asserted the election was stolen. In a video message released after the House vote, he called on supporters to avoid violence and to support law and order.

The New Jersey Oath Keepers organization denies it is an extremist group in any way, posting a response to njoathkeepers.org after the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness described the group as militia extremists in 2016.

“We are a constitution education outreach group to our brothers and sisters who wear the uniform,” reads a statement on the website. “All of our activities are 100% lawful. A large portion of our membership are veterans who have served this country well.”

Attempts to contact the organization were unsuccessful. There was no response to an email sent to the posted address for the Cape May County chapter, and the email for a New Jersey spokesman bounced back as undeliverable.

The website of the national organization appeared to be down as of Wednesday. The site consisted of a page stating their service provider “has shown its colors and caved to the loony left.”

“Please use your training and adapt to the new environment. Keep your cool and know that we are all in this together,” reads the posted statement.

Saracco alleged Cape May resident Leonard Guthrie Jr. was a member. Guthrie was among those arrested in Washington during the riots. Attempts to reach Guthrie for comment Thursday were unsuccessful.

Saracco asked at the meeting how the county could know the insurrection was not planned in part in its own historic courthouse.

It could not be independently confirmed that Guthrie was a member of the Oath Keepers, although his name is listed on a page of the group’s website as participating in an event in September 2018 as a member of an organization called the Light Foot Militia.

Guthrie was charged with crossing a police barrier on Capitol grounds. He told a Press of Atlantic City reporter he was already in custody when rioters broke into the building.

He said he wanted to act in civil disobedience to “bring God back to D.C.”

“This wasn’t about going in and destroying the building,” Guthrie said Friday. “It had nothing to do with that. I have nothing to say about that other than they shouldn’t have done that. That was wrong. That was stupid.”

The only event currently listed on the New Jersey Oath Keepers page for January is a Cape May County meeting set for 7 p.m. Jan. 21 at the Old Court House.

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