Just weeks before the 2020 presidential election, John Eastman co-drafted the 70 Days Report for the Claremont Institute, a far-right research group that officials with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) have tied to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol which left seven dead and hundreds of rioters facing federal criminal charges.
The purpose of the report by Donald Trump’s former legal advisor was to roleplay scenarios that could lead to the election of Trump even as national polling at the time suggested a lead by Joe Biden. In many of the scenarios, Eastman and his co-authors envisioned riots and violence by leftist groups before, during, and after the election. To combat the imagined foes, the co-authors saw an important role for right-wing sheriffs across the country.
“There are rumors that several sheriffs in conservative counties throughout the country are hinting that they may deputize regular citizens into posses should the lawlessness come to their counties,” reads the report that erroneously tied lawlessness to pro-Biden supporters. “Social media is ablaze with volunteers from Proud Boys, Three Percenters, Oath Keepers, and other groups to form posses.”
One year after outlining the potential role of Trump-supporting sheriffs in helping to overthrow a democratically elected government, the Claremont Institute launched the Sheriffs Fellowship. Tarrant County’s Sheriff Bill Waybourn, himself a vocal and longtime supporter of the former president who inflamed violence during the insurrection, was among eight inaugural graduates in November.
Waybourn and the seven other fellows, based on Claremont’s website, spent one week in November at the institute’s campus in Orange County, California, where they learned about the “radical left.” The self-described mission of the Claremont Institute Sheriffs Fellowship is to study the evolution of “militant progressivism and multiculturalism with particular emphasis on the role of law enforcement in maintaining liberty.”
The recent seizure of Eastman’s phone by FBI agents has direct implications for Waybourn and anyone with direct ties to groups that may have planned and implemented the insurrection. Eastman, founder of the Claremont’s Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence, is frequently described by experts who follow anti-government groups as one of the architects of the failed coup.
The seizure of Eastman’s phone is part of a far-reaching effort by DOJ prosecutors to expand their criminal investigation into supporters of Trump and his failed efforts to cling to power after Biden’s landslide victory. The federal effort is focused on Trump’s advisors and supporters, who face charges of obstruction of justice, sedition, and fraud, among other charges that could lead to lifetime prison sentences.
Earlier this year and as part of a court order to hand over hundreds of Trump-related emails to Congress’ Jan. 6 Select Committee, U.S. District Court Judge David Carter wrote that there is credible evidence that Eastman and Trump conspired to obstruct Congress on Jan. 6.
“If Dr. Eastman and President Trump’s plan had worked, it would have permanently ended the peaceful transition of power, undermining American democracy and the Constitution,” Carter wrote. “If the country does not commit to investigating and pursuing accountability for those responsible, the Court fears January 6 will repeat itself.”
Waybourn was one of six Claremont fellowship attendees affiliated with the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA), a group labeled as anti-government extremists by the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center. CSPOA wants to place regular military troops along the southern border, fight efforts to mandate background checks for firearm sales, and reduce or eliminate federal control of state land, among other conservative initiatives.
“Bill Waybourn, Constitutional Candidate for Sheriff of Tarrant County, is officially endorsed by CSPOA founder and president Sheriff Richard Mack,” reads a 2016 CSPOA Facebook post.
Mack, who founded CSPOA in 2011, is also a founding board member of the far-right militia the Oath Keepers that federal prosecutors believe spearheaded the assault on the Capitol on Jan. 6. Oath Keepers founder and Granbury resident Stewart Rhodes remains incarcerated while awaiting trial on seditious conspiracy charges for his role in the far right’s attempted coup.
Uniting the ideologies of right-wing militias is the false belief that the United States is a solely Christian nation that should be ruled by fundamentalist Christian politicians. The most outspoken proponents of Christian Nationalism in Fort Worth can be found at Mercy Culture Church, the charismatic megachurch at the center of this week’s cover story.
Waybourn is a frequent visitor and speaker at Mercy Culture events that promote Republican candidates, despite federal laws that ban churches, which are tax-exempt, from endorsing political candidates. By making human trafficking a major focus of his administration, Waybourn is again aligning himself with far-right groups that include Mercy Culture Church. Without any evidence, QAnon followers and other right-wing fanatics maintain that Democrats and Hollywood elites manage large rings of human trafficking, the umbrella term that encompasses forced sex and labor.
Pastors Landon and Heather Schott, who co-founded Mercy Culture Church a few years ago, recently withdrew plans to build a 100-bed shelter for sex trafficking victims after facing overwhelming backlash from area residents, who saw the project as dangerous to the victims and poorly planned.
When speaking at Mercy Culture events, Sheriff Waybourn often invokes Biblical language to describe his efforts to address human trafficking. Based on our open records requests, his four-year-old Human Trafficking Unit has failed to deliver significant trafficking-related arrests and prosecutions despite the availability of various federal grants, three investigators, and one supervisor.
Since 2019, Waybourn’s unit has obtained only five human trafficking prosecutions from the district attorney’s office out of 546 investigations, which is about 1%. The vast majority of charges are for prostitution offenses that may have resulted from entrapment, based on his well-documented use of professional actors posing as prostitutes.
Affiliations with right-wing militias and lackluster use of tax dollars through his trafficking unit have not translated to political setbacks for the sheriff, who maintains staunch support from local conservatives. Waybourn defeated his Democratic opponent, former Fort Worth cop Vance Keyes, by six percentage points in 2020.
Waybourn’s tenure has been plagued by record numbers of deaths at the Tarrant County Jail, which he manages as sheriff. At least 39 people have died in custody since 2019, based on data from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. Our magazine was recently awarded a First Amendment Award from the regional Society of Professional Journalists for publishing around a dozen accounts from men and women detained at the jail in 2020 (“Treated ‘Like Animals,’ ” Aug. 2021). The sworn complaints are full of horror stories, including one of a man who repeatedly slit his wrists to escape alleged daily sexual abuse by jailers.
Civil rights attorney Jarrett Adams and his colleagues are using the documented pattern of mistreatment of prisoners who languish and die in custody as legal grounds for an ambitious lawsuit currently playing out in Tarrant Count’s civil courts. Three national civil rights law firms, with Adams as the lead plaintiff, are combining resources to sue Fort Worth and Tarrant County law enforcement for the wrongful death of Chasity Congious’ newborn while the mother was in jail in 2020.
In his complaint, Adams alleges that medical staff at the jail had notified jailers that Congious did not have the mental capacity to know when she went into contractions. When she did go into labor, the complaint reads, she did so alone in an isolation cell. Adams said the idea that jailers didn’t hear Congious’ tormented screams as she delivered a newborn defies belief.
“Sheriff Bill Waybourn is a showman,” Adams told us earlier this year, referring to the sheriff’s love of grandstanding during press conferences with Trump or while speaking on right-wing radio shows.
The attorney alleges that Waybourn has made misleading public generalizations about the Congious case that he will have to answer for in front of a jury, likely later this year.
“If you put this in front of a jury, and you have a jury made up of parents, I don’t think [the defendants in this case] want to see that judgment,” Adams said.
Up next in our series will be Tarrant County’s family courts, followed by the district attorney’s office and the Tarrant Appraisal District (TAD).
This story is part of City in Crisis, an ongoing series of reports on unethical behavior and worse by local public leaders, featuring original reporting. The next one, on Tarrant County family courts, will appear in the July 27 issue.