How one Upstate NY sheriff's oath led him down a far-right path
On a winter evening in early 2020, people packed inside the Lewis County courthouse in Lowville. The crowded room was not typical for a county board meeting, but on this night legislators were talking about gun control.
The agenda for that February county board meeting included a proposal to make Lewis County a Second Amendment sanctuary, where state gun laws wouldn’t be enforced by local officials.
About 30 minutes in, a man who had been standing in the back of the room walked to the front — the county’s top law enforcement official, Sheriff Mike Carpinelli.
“This is no joke,” Carpinelli said, with a grave expression on his face. “This is the fight for your lives as you know it in a free republic.”
Carpinelli was in support of the sanctuary idea. It aligned not only with his personal views on guns, but also with a larger ideological movement he’s been part of for years, called the constitutional sheriffs.
Extremism experts, a top New York State security official, and some Lewis County residents say they’re concerned by Carpinelli’s ties to that movement, as well as his connections to the Oath Keepers militia. But for the sheriff, and others who buy into the group’s ideology, they believe they're the last line of defense against tyranny.
That night, Carpinelli described then-Governor Andrew Cuomo as “this tyrant that we have in Albany,” and said the state’s lawmakers are against people in Lewis County. Then, he reminded the room where his allegiance lies.
“I absolutely support the constitution, the oath that I took, way before I support the state, way before I’ll support the county constitution or any other constitution,” Carpinelli said.
In the end, Lewis County did not become a Second Amendment sanctuary. But for the local gun rights crowd, Carpinelli was a hero. He still is.
A few weeks after the county board meeting, Carpinelli emailed some colleagues about the Second Amendment sanctuary idea. “We will prevail! But not without a fight. It will be done with Faith, Education, Elections and Force when necessary!”
Constitutional sheriffs and the threat they pose
While other conservative sheriffs in the North Country say they’re obligated to follow state laws, Carpinelli says that’s not necessarily true — one of the core tenets of an ideological movement among some law enforcement officials in the U.S. called the constitutional sheriffs.
Last year, Carpinelli spoke with the group’s most influential and public-facing leader, former Arizona sheriff Richard Mack, in an online video interview.
“In your county, are you more powerful than the President of the United States and any other federal or state official?” asked Mack.
“In my county, yes,” replied Carpinelli.
Mack founded the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, which teaches sheriffs that they don’t have to follow laws they deem unconstitutional. It’s an ideology that experts describe as authoritarian and dangerous.
NCPR reached out to Carpinelli multiple times in recent months. He turned down our interview request. We wanted to ask him about his legal philosophy, and statements like this one from that same interview with Richard Mack:
“I believe in defending our country. If all else fails — if all else fails — then we know what we have to do. Then we know,” Carpinelli said. “I don't believe yet, that we're there yet,” he added.
Buying into a movement
Authoritarianism is on the rise around the world. In some U.S. counties, this movement to empower constitutional sheriffs has taken hold and people are buying in.
“They can’t force [Carpinelli] to do certain things, which we’re glad of anyways,” said Gene Stanford from Port Leyden. “And he knows that the people here are going to back him on that.”
Lewis County is very conservative. Carpinelli has been reelected sheriff three times and even ran for governor. He’s popular, not in spite of saying he won’t enforce certain laws and mandates, but partly because of it.
Henry Nortz from Lowville said he appreciates Carpinelli’s stance on state gun laws. “Being a gun owner, I would side with him on some of the stuff that [...] royally ticks you off if you're a freedom-loving person who owns firearms,” said Nortz.
Meanwhile, Carpinelli’s ties to the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, as well as the Oath Keepers — one of the groups at the center of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol — are alarming for New York’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services.
“The Oath Keepers were part of organizing an attack on our democracy,” said Jackie Bray, the division’s commissioner. “Law enforcement leaders should not have formal relationships with them, full stop.”
Commissioner Bray added that her department focuses on activity that “crosses a line from speech to incitement of violence or planning violence,” and said her department doesn’t get involved when elected leaders make bold or controversial statements.
Joe Henderson, a professor at Paul Smith’s College in the Adirondacks, said people should pay close attention to those statements. “What makes a county sheriff think that he has more power than other branches of the government?” Henderson said. “When I hear that, I hear [...] somebody who wants to exist outside of the law.”
The SAFE Act and the Second Amendment
Carpinelli grew up in the Hudson Valley. He enlisted in the US Army Reserve after high school and then became a police officer in the mid ‘80s. He worked in Kingston, Rochester, and eventually moved to Lewis County, where Carpinelli started as a deputy and was later elected sheriff in 2011.
Again, NCPR reached out to Carpinelli several times for this story. He declined our interview request. So we reviewed many of the interviews and public appearances he’s done over the years and found that Carpinelli has been very public about his far-right views.
We wanted to figure out how he went down this path — how he aligned himself with a far-right, anti-government movement — and why his politics resonate with so many people.
One thing was immediately clear. Gun rights play a central role in that story.
In the wake of the Sandy Hook mass shooting in December 2012 — when 20 children and six adults were massacred at an elementary school in Connecticut — New York passed the SAFE Act. The new gun law banned high-capacity magazines and created a registry for assault weapons in the state, among other tight restrictions.
Like many conservatives in the North Country, Carpinelli came out against the legislation. He rallied in Albany and, according to the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, said he would not enforce the SAFE Act.
Signs calling for the law to be repealed popped up all over the North Country. Carpinelli’s hardline stance resonated, and still resonates, with people in Lewis County.
“He’s a good man for the Second Amendment,” said Gene Stanford from Port Leyden, “and in this area, that’s a big thing. That’s a big plus.”
“To my knowledge, yes, there’s some laws he don’t have to deal with,” Stanford added. “Because he works for us, this is why he’s doing what he’s doing.”
The goal of constitutional sheriffs
In 2013, the same year that the SAFE Act was signed into law, Carpinelli connected with Richard Mack, the founder of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association.
“We can take back America county by county and state by state. And if the state doesn’t want to do it, then we’ll do it county by county — one good sheriff at a time,” Mack said at the 2021 ReAwaken America Tour, a far-right conference. The video clip appeared in a recent investigative series on Mack by the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting.
Constitutional sheriffs believe that local authorities — not the federal government — have the final say in deciding what is and isn’t constitutional. But legal scholars say that’s inaccurate and they do not have the final say.
“There's no polite, genteel, civil way to describe that point of view. It is utterly mistaken. That's the kindest thing I can say about it,” said John Finn, who teaches courses in constitutional theory and public law at Wesleyan University. “It has no grounding in any legitimate reading of constitutional history.”
“In extreme right circles, the Constitution is a deeply conservative document” that “serves as kind of a mirror to their own political ideologies,” Finn said. “It's a Constitution that enshrines a particular notion of who ‘We the People’ are — one that's deeply Christian, deeply nationalist, deeply white.”
Rachel Goldwasser, a senior research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center, has spent a long time researching Richard Mack and the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association. She says they’re doing more than just pushing a fringe legal theory.
“Their goal is really to just radicalize every single sheriff in the country into determining that they're not gonna follow particular federal and even state laws,” Goldwasser said.
But Goldwasser said most people don’t recognize what the real threat is: “When someone that absolutely should not have a weapon has utilized that weapon in a way that hurts other people, for instance,” she said. “I do think people should be very worried.”
Carpinelli was one of the keynote speakers at the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association’s national conference in Virginia in 2020. And today, his photo is on the group’s homepage endorsing Mack — who in turn calls Carpinelli “very loyal” and “a good friend.”
“When anybody talks about constitutional sheriffs in New York, Mike Carpinelli is the first name that comes up,” Mack said last year on his talk show.
Connecting with the Oath Keepers
As Carpinelli became more political, pushing back against gun laws, he was also connecting with another far-right group — the Oath Keepers.
In 2013, the Oath Keepers put out a call to form “County Sheriff Posses.” A lot of people reportedly left the group in the years that followed, as the Oath Keepers became a militia and grew more violent in their rhetoric.
Despite that, Carpinelli stuck by the Oath Keepers. In 2016, he accepted the New York Oath Keepers’ Constitutional Sheriff Award. Today, a photo of him holding that award is the top image on his official sheriff's Facebook page.
Rich Giardino, a Republican sheriff in nearby Fulton County, is also very conservative, but when he was invited to join the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association and Oath Keepers, Giardino told us that he turned down both groups.
“Like, it sounds good, ‘Oath Keeper.’ You took an oath to the Constitution, sounds great, you know? But then stick with your oath to the Constitution,” said Giardino. “I think that some of the leadership in some of these places are too extreme. [...] I don't want my name to be attached to that message.”
But Giardino added that he knows Carpinelli personally, and trusts him as a sheriff.
Jan. 6 and an email to Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes
The Oath Keepers played a key role in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, during which a mob threatened to hang members of Congress and Vice President Mike Pence. Multiple people died during and after the attack.
For months, President Donald Trump and his allies had been falsely claiming that the election was stolen. On that day, Carpinelli was at a Stop the Steal rally in Albany. In a Facebook live video, Carpinelli’s speech sounded almost biblical.
“Do not be discouraged by what you see. Don’t be discouraged by what you hear from the tongues that are not of the pure that have been poisoned. But listen to the ones that are good of heart, have God in their heart,” Carpinelli said.
Months after Jan. 6, Rhodes emailed his supporters, encouraging them to rally for people arrested in connection with the Capitol riot. He described them as “political prisoners.”
NCPR obtained the message through a Freedom of Information request, and Carpinelli was on that email chain.
Carpinelli responded directly to Rhodes. “Hi Stewart! Good to hear you Sir! I attended one last SUNDAY in Syracuse,” he wrote.
The sheriff has said he does not condone the violence that happened on Jan. 6. But he’s also downplayed that day and the immediate threat posed to democracy when Trump, his allies, and rioters on the ground all worked to interrupt the peaceful transfer of power in a presidential election.
Carpinelli has also vouched for one of the people arrested for entering the Capitol, calling him a “good friend” in a character reference he wrote for the man’s case. He got a lot of pushback for the letter, in part because he wrote it on his official letterhead - breaking Lewis County policy.
Republican county legislator Lisa Virkler said those policies should be clear to all county employees. “For somebody to be able to just blatantly disregard policy and also just good practice was shocking, and it made me wonder what else is out there with county letterhead on it,” said Virkler.
A Lewis County resident wrote an op-ed in the Watertown Daily Times about Carpinelli’s actions, saying the sheriff “should hang his head in shame.”
When we recently asked people in Lewis County about Jan. 6, though, most did not share that viewpoint. “I think the whole thing was pretty blown out of proportion,” said Cindy Nortz from Lowville. Nortz also said she didn’t have a problem with Carpinelli’s connections to the Oath Keepers or the constitutional sheriffs.
Democracy and the rule of law
It’s not illegal to associate with the Oath Keepers or the constitutional sheriffs or to attend rallies. But Jackie Bray, commissioner of New York’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services, said Carpinelli’s behavior is concerning.
“The Oath Keepers leaders have been convicted of seditious conspiracy and of organizing a coup against the democratic leadership of this country. There's nothing more offending to me than that,” said Bray.
Bray was referring to the idea of democracy with a little “d.” In a democracy, voters elect politicians to make law and law enforcement is responsible for enforcing those laws.
But constitutional sheriffs say they can choose which laws they believe in, and Sheriff Mike Carpinelli in Lewis County has done that multiple times over the years. Initially over gun laws and more recently over other issues that affect a lot of people, including the pandemic.
Carpinelli pushed back on state COVID mandates in 2020 and 2021, refusing to enforce what he called an “unlawful quarantine.”
“For all of us to be such sheep and be in such fear is absolutely ridiculous,” Carpinelli said during aLewis County board meeting in Jan. 2021. “Now you’re going to use a law enforcement official to get people to stay in their house? Not a chance from this guy.”
A few months ago, Carpinelli waded into the conversation about gender identity in schools.In a Facebook live interview, Carpinelli referred to gender policies as “mind control.”
“If any parent goes to school, [and] they find out that the administration is pushing this pedofile — this anti-gender crap about who they are and what they are,” Carpinelli said, “and a parent feels that their child has been endangered by the school system, we’ll take a formal complaint from you. A signed statement. We’ll send down a deputy or investigator and we will arrest that school teacher. We will arrest that superintendent, okay?”
Then, Carpinelli added: “If people are thinking, ‘Oh, is the sheriff going to haul ‘em out to jail?’ Unfortunately, no I can’t haul ‘em to jail.”
But the sheriff was suggesting he could arrest someone for teaching something he doesn’t agree with — not something that’s against the law.
“To me, as a scholar who studies these things, it smacks of authoritarianism,” said Joe Henderson of Paul Smith’s College.
“It's this kind of belief that you should be deferential to certain kinds of authority, and anybody who deviates from that authority needs to be punished,” said Henderson.
He and others who study extremism say this kind of rhetoric matters because a local authority is picking and choosing which laws to enforce, leaving an entire population potentially at the mercy of one person’s ideology.
“How does somebody on the one hand believe that the government shouldn't tread on them, while also being literally an agent of the state? And the way that's a smooth ideology is that you believe that your interpretation of the state is the correct one,” said Henderson.
John Finn, the government professor from Wesleyan, also pointed out that many in the constitutional sheriffs movement frequently invoke God and the idea that the Constitution was divinely inspired — often in the same moments when they’re talking about local sheriffs being the ultimate authority in the United States.
“It means the local county sheriff is the ultimate bulwark against people messing around with God's work,” Finn said. “It allows them to imagine themselves as the great defenders of God's plan for America.”
According to Rachel Goldwasser’s research at the Southern Poverty Law Center, Carpinelli is one of eight constitutional sheriffs around New York and dozens across the country.
As for the Oath Keepers, a leaked list showed that at one point there were almost 2,000 members in New York — including police officers, prison guards, and a high-ranking military officer. Though many of the people on that list have reportedly left the group.
Local support for Sheriff Carpinelli
If you drive around Lewis County, you’ll see a lot of signs in support of Mike Carpinelli. Some people still even have “Mike Carpinelli for NYS Governor” signs.
We talked to several people in the county, both in person and over the phone, trying to figure out how Carpinelli’s behavior — his embrace of a fringe ideology — is even possible. Here’s what we know.
First, plenty of people aren’t aware of it. Lydia Eastman from Glenfield had never heard of the Oaths Keepers, the constitutional sheriffs, or knew anything about Carpinelli’s ties to the groups.
Eastman says Carpinelli is a good sheriff and good for Lewis County. "I’ve seen a lot of his signs around," Eastman said. “I’ve never had any encounters with him, but I know that he’s helped a lot of my friends and family in the community.”
Second, there are people in Lewis County who are aware of Carpinelli’s ties to far-right groups and his stances on certain laws. They either love Carpinelli for it — like Gene Stanford from Port Leyden — or, those particular aspects of Carpinelli’s politics are not the most important thing about the sheriff.
Richard Defone, a former village judge from Lowville, said “You can’t pick and choose” which laws to follow. But overall, “He’s done a good job as a sheriff. I think he brought innovations to the department and the department’s run pretty well.”
There are people in Lewis County who are concerned about Carpinelli, though most people we spoke to with those opinions didn’t want to talk on tape, saying they were scared of the repercussions.
But one of those people, a Republican county lawmaker, gave some insight into the sheriff and his career, describing Carpinelli as “the most popular politician in Lewis County.”
“The people of Lewis County consistently elect him,” the lawmaker said, adding, “there’s no secret about where he stands.”
This reporting is part of a new series on far-right extremism in the North Country that we’re calling “If All Else Fails.” The series has support from Grist and the Center for Rural Strategies. The music in this story is from the Blue Dot Sessions.
Copyright 2023 WRVO. To see more, visit WRVO.