Sheriff Glenn Palmer communicated directly with leaders of an armed militia who took over a federal wildlife refuge earlier this year.
The state Justice Department has opened a criminal investigation into Grant County Sheriff Glenn Palmer, who met with militants from the wildlife refuge takeover in eastern Oregon and urged authorities to concede to some of their demands.
The investigation will be handled by the Criminal Justice Division in Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum’s office. The division investigates public corruption as part of its duties.
Justice Department officials wouldn’t comment on the focus of the investigation other than to confirm they are examining one of nine complaints passed along by the state agency that regulates police officers. The complaints have been filed since late January.
Glenn Palmer, 54, who has been sheriff since 2000, has said he won’t comment to The Oregonian/OregonLive on any matter.
He is the third sheriff currently enmeshed in state criminal investigations. Klamath County Sheriff Frank Skrah has been indicted on assault and official misconduct charges but remains in office. The Justice Department recently opened an investigation into Multnomah County Sheriff Dan Staton for alleged misconduct involving office employees.
Sheriff Glenn Palmer is likely to remain in office during the investigation because county officials have no authority to suspend him or otherwise act to limit his police duties.
Scott Myers, Grant County judge who chairs the county commission, said Thursday he was unaware the state had opened a criminal case and he intended to talk to Palmer. He noted Palmer has no undersheriff who could step in.
The last undersheriff, Todd McKinley, resigned and is now running against Palmer, who is seeking his fifth term. McKinley is director of Grant County Community Corrections.
The complaints against Sheriff Glenn Palmer came after Ammon E. Bundy, 40, of Emmett, Idaho, and other armed protesters on Jan. 2 seized control of the headquarters compound of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Later that month, Bundy invited Palmer to visit the militants at the refuge, but he declined.
Sheriff Glenn Palmer, however, told the local Blue Mountain Eagle newspaper he considered the occupiers to be “patriots.” He told The Oregonian/OregonLive that the takeover would be resolved only if authorities granted some of Bundy’s demands, including freeing two jailed ranchers and the retreat of FBI agents who arrived in Harney County.
In January, Sheriff Glenn Palmer twice met with militant leaders in John Day, including Ryan W. Payne, 32, of Anaconda, Montana, and Jon E. Ritzheimer, 32, of Peoria, Arizona. Ritzheimer said in a later interview that he and Payne autographed Palmer’s pocket version of the Constitution.
The militants then agreed to appear at a community meeting in John Day on Jan. 26, a session organized by a handful of Grant County residents who are sharply critical of federal government conduct. Palmer also was scheduled to speak.
The militants never appeared because they were stopped by state troopers and FBI agents on the state highway between Burns and John Day. Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, 54, was shot and killed as he attempted to evade police. Ammon Bundy and other leaders were arrested.
Later, Sheriff Glenn Palmer referred to the police operation as an “ambush.”
Last weekend, Ammon Bundy released a statement defending the sheriff, encouraging people to “stand with Sheriff Palmer” in the face of the state licensing agency’s actions.
The nine complaints filed with state regulators all cite Palmer’s involvement with the armed militants. Licensing officials said in letters to those submitting the complaints that the conduct they complained of would violate state licensing standards if proven.
John Day Police Chief Richard Gray was among those complaining. He recounted how Palmer twice met in John Day with the militants as the occupation continued.
“I have a great public safety concern when the Grant County sheriff is allowed to openly meet with and be part of this group of lawbreakers,” Gray wrote in his complaint.
He also cited a 2012 episode as evidence of misconduct by Palmer that should be investigated, referring to the apparent deletion of a police report from electronic files. Gray at the time was running against Palmer for sheriff.
Another complaint was filed by Valerie Luttrell, manager of the John Day dispatch center that serves local agencies, including the sheriff’s office. She said Palmer was judged a “security leak” by local police, state troopers and the FBI. She said Palmer promotes his personal agenda “over the welfare and safety of the general public he is sworn to protect.”
The remaining complaints were filed confidentially as allowed by law.