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Two plead guilty to threatening government officials over elections

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Two people pleaded guilty Thursday in separate cases that involved calling for the deaths of public officials on election days following the 2020 presidential contest, federal prosecutors said.

Joshua Russell, 44, of Ohio, threatened a person in the Arizona secretary of state’s office by name, whom he called “a traitor to this country,” the Justice Department said in a statement.

“America’s coming for you, and you will pay with your life,” Russell said in a voicemail on Aug. 2, 2022, the day of Arizona’s primary elections. He made two other threats in September and November.

Russell pleaded guilty to one count of making a threatening interstate communication, the Justice Department said.

In Georgia, Chad Christopher Stark, 55, of Texas, pleaded guilty Thursday to one count of a sending a threat using a telecommunications device.

Stark on Jan. 5, 2021, posted a message to Craigslist in which he called for Georgia public officials to be killed.

“We’re going to make examples of traitors to our country,” Stark wrote, the Justice Department said.

Georgia held special Senate runoff elections that day, when Democrats ousted the two Republican incumbents. Two months earlier, Joe Biden won Georgia in the presidential election.

Threats to elections officials have skyrocketed after the 2020 election as former President Donald Trump and his allies have spread lies about the election’s having been stolen or rigged.

Forty-five percent of elections officials reported fearing for the safety of other elections workers, according to a poll released in April by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. The survey found 1 in 3 elections officials “have been harassed, abused, or threatened because of their job,” the center said.

Russell faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison, and the charge Stark pleaded guilty to carries up to two years, prosecutors said.

Russell’s sentencing is scheduled for Nov. 13, while a sentencing date has not yet been set for Stark, the Justice Department said.

Jazmin Alagha, a federal public defender representing Russell, said that “we respect this process and expect a fair result.” A defender listed as representing Stark did not immediately reply to a request for comment Thursday night.

The guilty pleas are the eighth and ninth convictions since the Justice Department formed an Election Threats Task Force to combat threats made to elections officials after the 2020 election. Fourteen cases have been charged by the task force, the Justice Department said.

“A functioning democracy requires that the public servants who administer our elections are able to do their jobs without fearing for their lives,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement Thursday.

The task force was launched in July 2021, around six months after a mob of Trump supporters attacked the U.S. Capitol and temporarily disrupted the formality of counting electoral votes.


Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.