Who are The Oath Keepers?
When the Oath Keepers were founded in 2009 they positioned themselves as defenders of the Constitution. The group became associated with anti-government views after members showed up to defend Nevada ranchers in a 2014 armed standoff with the Bureau of Land Management, which was enforcing payment for cattle grazing on federal land.
The Oath Keepers took on a racial dimension later that year and in 2015, when armed members began showing up to the poor Missouri suburb of Ferguson, where residents and supporters were protesting police violence after the killing of a black teenager.
The group became a household name after playing a significant role in the January 6, 2021, insurrection in the U.S. Capitol, where lawmakers were meeting to certify the 2020 election results. Oath Keeper founder E. Stewart Rhodes III was sentenced to 18 years in prison this past May on seditious conspiracy charges for his role in the violence. Several other Oath Keeper leaders were also handed long sentences.
🔗Oath Keepers and Homeland Security
by OCCRP and the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) showed that more than 300 people had identified themselves as current or former members of DHS, and agencies under its command.
That led to 65 lawmakers pushing DHS for answers as to why it still lacks a policy about membership in extremist organizations, and whether it has referred any of its employees to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Their letter mentioned the OCCRP and POGO reporting.
“It is clear that the issue of extremists infiltrating federal law enforcement is a persistent and clear threat to the rule of law and national security, and urgent action is needed,” said the letter, which was signed by three representatives from Illinois.
As of mid-October, DHS had not formally responded to the letter, legislative sources confirmed. Spokespeople for DHS did not answer questions about the letter or policy changes.
More Less The Officers
One person named on the Oath Keeper membership list obtained by OCCRP is Michael Nowacki, who worked for the U.S. military in Iraq as an interrogator. In
an essay exploring his conflicted feelings about the experience, he wrote: “Sometimes to be good, you have to do things that are evil, right?”
Personnel records obtained in 2023 indicate that Nowacki is an active duty officer. The records show he worked in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, rising to the rank of sergeant.
Over Christmas holidays in 2007, Nowacki received an email from community activist Deborah Payne, soliciting a donation to help two needy families. Nowacki had given her his card at a community event designed to build trust.
“You’re a goof,” he responded from his police email address. “I have no desire to help inner city poor people,” he added in a subsequent email.
Payne reached out in tears to a veteran activist, who wrote to Nowacki’s commander and an investigation followed. She cried again after learning that Nowacki had joined the Oath Keepers after that interaction.
“They’re supposed to serve and protect, and their heart has that kind of venom in it,” she said.
Nowacki did not respond to requests for comment.
Knowing there are Oath Keepers in the police ranks erodes trust and undermines effective policing, warned Deborah Witzburg, Chicago’s inspector general.
“We solve crimes because somebody trusts the police officer enough to tell them what happened. And if people do not trust the police department, they will not share information with the police,” said Witzburg.
Another Chicago police officer who appears on the Oath Keepers membership list is John Nicezyporuk. Personnel records obtained in 2023 show that he was still employed by the Chicago Police Department, and reveal that he was investigated in 2014 for an alleged incident of racial abuse.
The alleged victim was Brandon Forbish, a special education teacher who was returning from watching college basketball with fellow church members when he inadvertently drove the wrong direction up a one-way street. He pulled into an alley to turn around and was stopped by Nicezyporuk.
Police records show that Forbish sought out the nearest police station to file a report immediately after the incident, and later sat for an interview with internal Chicago police investigators.
The report says Forbish complained Nicezyporuk used racial slurs against him. He told an investigator he was “scared to be around white people like that … especially white cops.”
Nicezyporuk denied the accusations, the personnel documents show. He did not respond to requests for comment.
Investigators concluded that Forbish could not prove his allegations, because he lacked audio or video evidence. Records also show Nicezyporuk faced a similar complaint from a black man in 2010 who alleged the officer used racial slurs during a stop.
Police personnel records obtained by reporters do not show any investigation into Nicezyporuk’s and Nowacki’s Oath Keeper links.
Records do show an internal probe of one law enforcement officer on the Oath Keeper membership list. An Oath Keeper spreadsheet showing dues-paying members in June 2012 included Matthew Paulish, who self-identified as a police officer. He joined, it said, after learning of the Oath Keepers from “a friend at work,” suggesting at least one other colleague may have joined too.
Reporters discovered Paulish has been assigned to work as a police officer on the campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago since 2005.
An internal affairs document shows that campus police received a complaint in August 2022 from the Anti-Defamation League that Paulish had been “at some point a member of a far-right anti-government militia known as the Oath Keepers.”
What followed, or didn’t, is notable.
“While your participation in the group was virtually nil, the mere fact that you failed to conduct thorough research of their mission or philosophy prior to joining this group and combined with the fact that you were identified as a member in and of itself reflects adversely on the department,” Paulish was told in a warning that went into his personnel records.
In a videotape of his interview, Paulish tells investigators that he sent a one-time donation to the group in 2009 and had no further contact. Oath Keepers records show him as an active member in 2012 and having made a $100 donation. Paulish did not respond to requests for comment.
One of the few Chicago police officers who agreed to speak about their presence on the Oath Keeper membership list was Alberto Retamozo, a Navy veteran. He said he couldn’t recall who signed him up and said he never paid dues. The records show he had “full member” status that involved monthly $50 payments for nearly two years.
The Oath Keepers support for the Constitution caught his attention, he said, but his views have changed. “It’s like a slap in the face,” he said of the Oath Keepers and the leadership role in the 2021 insurrection.
A civilian-led panel has been working with Chicago police officials to broaden an existing policy that bars officers from joining street gangs and other criminal organizations. Draft language would explicitly include extremist groups, including those that “seek to overthrow, destroy, or alter the form of government of the United States by unconstitutional means.”
Larry Snelling, Chicago’s new police superintendent, cautioned in an interview that officers should be allowed to defend themselves against accusations of belonging to hate groups.
“But what I would like to see is something more concrete, something more written in stone, that would give us more of a balance in how we determine if someone is a part of a hate group,” he said. “Now, when we know that we have a hate group, any affiliation there is unacceptable.”
City Alderman Chris Taliaferro, a former internal affairs investigator for the police department, wants an explicit ban on membership in extremist organizations.
“I think our department has to be very clear, and not leave it to interpretation as to whether or not this organization is viewed as an extremist organization,” Taliaferro said.
“Give them a rule or policy that they know that if they do it, they know they will violate it,” he added.
Fact-checking was provided by the OCCRP Fact-Checking Desk.