BOISE — Idaho’s lieutenant governor posted a picture to Facebook Thursday “sending love” to a man sentenced to federal prison for his role in a 2014 standoff.
The post on Janice McGeachin’s Facebook page has since been removed. McGeachin, a Republican from Idaho Falls, took office in January after being elected as Idaho’s first female lieutenant governor.
The post read, “Sending love to Todd Engel from the Idaho Capitol and ‘getting to know’ the new Senate Pages.” In the photo, McGeachin, forming a heart symbol with her hands, stands between two men dressed in prison garb with “Engel” on the front.
“The photo was intended to show support for Engel and nothing more,” McGeachin wrote in a statement released Friday afternoon.
The men are both showing a symbol — three extended fingers with the thumb and pointer finger touching — which, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, is a symbol representing the group Three Percenters, a Second Amendment rights group. The “OK” symbol has also been used by the far right, including white supremacists, according to the Anti-Defamation League, though it’s believed to have originated as a hoax.
Following over two hours of refusal to speak to reporters, Idaho Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, issued a statement Friday afternoon, distributed by Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale.
“I took a photo with two Second Amendment supporters who were here to support Todd Engel, an Idahoan who was treated unjustly by the court system for standing up for our fundamental rights as Americans. They were part of a larger group who had come to the Capitol to protest Engel’s imprisonment.
“I wholeheartedly reject bigotry and discrimination in all of its forms. Throughout my public service, business career, and my personal life, I’ve always treated everyone with respect and dignity. Once I discovered that a few people had begun erroneously assigning sinister motives which are contrary to my true character, I immediately deleted the post.
“The photo was intended to show support for Engel and nothing more. No other messages were intended in this photo. To claim otherwise is ridiculous, and is part of a larger narrative to paint conservative leaders as embracing identity politics.
“Since being elected as the lieutenant governor of Idaho I have worked diligently with the business community to help develop a path to increase government efficiencies while improving government customer service to citizens and to help provide more opportunities for our youth to pursue skills-based careers. I look forward to continuing to work for the people of Idaho on these issues and demonstrating how Idaho continues to be the best state to live, work, raise a family, and visit.”
Engel, an Idaho native, was sentenced to 14 years in federal prison in July for his role in a 2014 standoff near the Nevada ranch of Cliven Bundy, in a dispute with the government over grazing rights on federal land, according to a previous report in The Spokesman Review.
Engel, who wielded a loaded gun during the standoff with federal agents, was found guilty and charged with obstruction and traveling across state lines in aid of extortion. Charges were dismissed against Bundy, two of his sons and an independent militia leader.
Sens. Michelle Stennett, Cherie Buckner-Webb and Maryanne Jordan with the Senate Democratic leadership released a statement Friday morning expressing concern with McGeachin’s post.
While acknowledging their commitment to free speech and openness, they are also “mindful of our responsibilities as elected officials to hold ourselves to a higher standard; to be thoughtful in our words and behavior,” the statement read.
“We have heard numerous grave concerns overnight and today from constituents who are now fearful of coming to the statehouse. Some have said they will not allow their children to visit,” the statement reads. “The openness of the statehouse is foundational to our service. Whatever the intention of the post, the impact has resonated negatively across the state.”
Buckner-Webb, the only African-American member of the Idaho Legislature, told the Idaho Press, “My phone was on fire last night from people all over the state, calling to express their concerns. Some were saying, ‘I”m not going to let my kids come on their field trip to the Capitol.’”
“It’s disconcerting,” Buckner-Webb said of McGeachin’s post. “She’s in a very high-visibility position, not only being the lieutenant governor, but also the first woman. So the scrutiny is amplified. I don’t believe there is any ill intent. I’m hopeful I can have a conversation with her. … She needs to understand the impact.”
Buckner-Webb said she and Sen. Maryanne Jordan went to McGeachin’s office Friday morning to discuss the matter with her, but she was in a meeting; McGeachin then dropped by Buckner-Webb’s office just before the Senate convened and the two clasped hands, but didn’t have time to talk.
Buckner-Webb said she even turned off her phone Thursday night; it was full again Friday morning. ”It’s crazy,” she said.
If she could give one message to McGeachin, Buckner-Webb said, she said it would be, “Janice, intention can be one thing, and impact is another. … I just think you have to use some common sense. … The impact of our actions, no matter what our intention is, you have to be cognizant. We are accountable. These misunderstandings can be deal-breaking. They can be very difficult, particularly when it comes to things that have to do with race and prejudice.”
She added, “I really believe we have to raise the bottom. We’re all judged by that, all of us — all of the people working in the Capitol.”
In 2017, 53 Idaho GOP lawmakers urged U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to ease charges on four Idahoans charged in the Bundy standoff. The letter was spearheaded by Rep. Dorothy Moon, R-Stanley.
That included Engel, of Boundary County. Lawmakers asked he be released for time he had already served as his sentence, the Spokesman Review reported.
Engel traveled to Bunkerville in 2014 with the intent to commit violence against Bureau of Land Management officers who were executing a court order on Bundy’s land, according to the Las Vegas Review Journal.
Engel wielded a loaded AR-15, hid behind concrete barriers and impeded agents. Engel was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison, though Bundy’s felony conspiracy and weapons crimes were dismissed, according to the report.
“It is very frustrating when the core defendants have not paid a price for the actions that Todd is now sitting in jail for,” Warren Markowitz, Engel’s attorney, said following the sentencing in July.
The Idaho Press reached out for comment from the national Anti-Defamation League seeking explanation of the “OK” symbol and its origination. The league shared a blog post from September 2018. According to the post, the “OK” hand gesture originated as a hoax in February 2017 from the 4chan website when an anonymous user announced “Operation O-KKK” and asked other members to “flood Twitter and other social media websites ... claiming that the OK hand sign is a symbol of white supremacy.”
Since then, the symbol has been used by the far right, including white supremacists, but also by Donald Trump supporters who likely do not know the symbol’s origin, the league wrote. Primarily, the symbol intends to trigger or troll people on the left.
“The fact that white supremacists, the alt lite and many Trump supporters all use the symbol means that one cannot assume that anyone who poses with such a gesture is intending or exhibiting an association with white supremacy,” the league claims. “Only if the gesture occurs in context with other clear indicators of white supremacy can one draw that conclusion.”