Wednesday, March 16, 2016 | 2 a.m.
They entered a federal office building while armed, renamed the facility, accessed personnel files and posted private information about employees online, destroyed fencing while allowing the media to record them, drove government vehicles and said they were ready to “kill or be killed” while making a stand against the United States government.
Nevada congressional candidate Michele Fiore calls this “camping.”
In an interview that explored her views of the type of anti-government activists who took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Ore., this year, Fiore bristled at questions in which the Oregon incident was described as an occupation. Not only did she say the activists acted lawfully, she contended they were victims of “an act of terrorism” by the federal government.
“It was abandoned. No one was there, so they basically kind of said, ‘This is a great place to camp and make our statement,’” Fiore said.
Asked about specific activities that were reported during the occupation, Fiore offered varying responses. She said she knew refuge vehicles were being driven by activists, but said one of the leaders tried to prevent it. She said she was unaware of fences being destroyed or employee information being compromised, despite reports from media outlets inside the facility.
“I’d need to see some proof,” said Fiore, currently a Nevada assemblywoman. “Somebody would need to show me.”
Harney County Sheriff David Ward and Harney County Judge Steve Grasty offer a drastically different assessment of what happened after rancher Cliven Bundy’s sons Ammon and Ryan led a 41-day takeover of the refuge office. They said the activists, who included members of the militia and sovereign citizen movements, drove vehicles belonging to the refuge and compromised the personnel files of 17 federal employees, leaking their names, Social Security numbers, telephone numbers and addresses online. The activists, who renamed the refuge office the Harney County Resource Center, were arrested on a number of charges, including gun-related offenses, destruction of property and conspiracy.
“It’s clearly against the law. I’m not sure how anyone could justify that as being legal,” said Grasty, who will not be overseeing any of the criminal proceedings because the activists are being tried in federal court.
But Fiore, a Republican who announced last week that she was running for Nevada’s 3rd Congressional District seat, isn’t toning down her rhetoric vilifying the federal government and championing anti-government forces.
Fiore has been a strong advocate of Cliven Bundy, his family and their supporters in the Bundys’ decades-long defiance of the federal government over grazing rights and fees. She praised the Bundys during what became known as the “Battle of Bunkerville,” a 2014 armed standoff between Bundy supporters and federal officials who attempted to seize the family’s cattle after Bundy refused to pay more than $1 million in grazing fees.
In Oregon, Fiore drew praise for helping negotiate a peaceful surrender of occupants days after federal authorities shot and killed one of them and arrested several others.
But in an interview with the Sun, Fiore said she believed it was acceptable for law-abiding people to take up arms against officials if provoked.
“If the government is going to point a gun at me, I’m going to point one right back,” Fiore said. “If you’re going to shoot me, I’m going to shoot you back.”
The wildlife refuge occupation began Jan. 2, after about 300 people participated in a protest in support of Dwight and Steven Hammond, a father-and-son pair of Oregon ranchers reporting to federal prison to begin serving convictions on arson charges.
After the protest, a group that included Bundy’s sons Ammon and Ryan took over the reserve, demanding that the U.S. government return federal lands to Harney County ranchers and its residents. On Jan. 26, federal officials shot and killed Bundy supporter Robert “LaVoy” Finicum and arrested several of the occupiers, including Ammon Bundy, after they tried to plow through a roadblock in an SUV, nearly hitting an authority at the scene.
Fiore said government officials committed an act of terrorism by pointing weapons at the activists. She said the government’s actions during the Bunkerville standoff were also terroristic acts. Asked to provide her definition of terrorism, she cited 9/11 and the attack in San Bernardino, Calif., but also said government forces committed “borderline” terrorism in Bunkerville. She listed other examples of what she described as terrorism at the hands of elected officials, including the release of detainees from Guantanamo Bay.
Sheriff Ward said Fiore knew as early as November of Ammon and Ryan Bundy’s desire to rally in Burns. They threatened to stage “a massive protest,” Ward said the Bundy brothers told him, prompting the sheriff to call Fiore that month in an attempt to defuse the situation.
“They were name-dropping her like a job reference,” Ward said. “But she couldn’t offer any help or suggestions.”
The sheriff said nobody in Burns knew the two Bundy brothers would go as far as occupying the local wildlife refuge, but reaffirmed they had “no legal right to an armed takeover,” which lasted through Feb. 11.
When pressed about how far she would go in support of anti-government groups or other protesters, Fiore sidestepped some questions. Asked whether she would support a takeover of other federal buildings — including Congress and the White House — she remarked that the White House was surrounded with gates to keep people out.
Fiore has drawn criticism on a number of fronts, including supporting the Confederate flag and suggesting during a radio interview that Syrian refugees should be shot and killed. She later issued a clarification, saying she was referring to terrorists and not innocent refugees.
In the Sun interview, Fiore said she would help any law-abiding people — including minority groups and Muslims — who sought her assistance against government persecution.
“If they said ‘I want to talk to Assemblywoman Michele Fiore,’ I will return the phone call,” Fiore said. “I will never turn my back on someone that wants help.”
But for at least two of Fiore’s colleagues in the Assembly, her rhetoric has become a source of concern.
Assemblyman Chris Edwards, a Republican representing District 19, said Fiore’s involvement with “illegitimate and misguided protesters acting illegally” discredits her stance as a defender of the Constitution.
“I think that’s a problem a lot of Republicans have with the stuff she does,” Edwards said. “Especially in this case, these protesters were misguided, they were out of line and they put others in danger.”
Jesse Sbaih, a Las Vegas lawyer and Democratic candidate for the congressional seat that Fiore also is seeking, said the Oregon protesters, acting against the law, were the real domestic terrorists during the six-week fiasco.
Sbaih suggested that Fiore, by supporting civil rights of some Americans and ignoring others, violates her oath taken as a Nevada elected official, to hold “true faith, allegiance and loyalty” to the constitutions of the United States and Nevada as well as “any ordinance, resolution or law of any state notwithstanding.”
“To support domestic terrorists and completely ignore real civil rights groups is just wrong,” Sbaih said. “It demonstrates how unfit she is to represent the state of Nevada.”
Another of Fiore’s colleagues, Nevada Assembly Speaker John Hambrick, said the assemblywoman’s constituents deserved a “better explanation of her thought process.”
“I would have hoped for a little more posture and composure on her part,” Hambrick said. “I think she needs to give her constituents a reasoning so they can at least understand why she does what she does.”