LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — A Nebraska man was sentenced Thursday to 18 months in prison for online threats he made against Colorado’s top elections official, in one of the first cases brought by a federal task force devoted to protecting elections workers nationwide from rising threats.
The sentence came the same day an Iowa man was arrested for allegedly leaving voicemail threats for a local Arizona official and the Arizona’s Attorney General’s Office.
In Nebraska, Travis Ford was sentenced in U.S. District Court in Lincoln, where he lives. He pleaded guilty earlier this year to sending threats to Secretary of State Jena Griswold on social media. It was the first guilty plea obtained by the U.S. Justice Department’s Election Threats Task Force, which was launched last year after the 2020 presidential election, citing the potential effect on democracy of threats against election officials and workers.
A national advocate for elections security, Griswold has received thousands of threats over her insistence the 2020 election was secure despite false claims by former President Donald Trump that it was stolen.
Ford must report Jan. 11 to a federal prison that will be named later. After prison he must complete a year of supervision.
Ford addressed the court Thursday, saying he takes responsibility for his actions and understands they were wrong.
“I’m ashamed, and I’m embarrassed for not only putting myself but my family through this,” he said.
Federal prosecutors had sought a two-year prison sentence, saying “there is a genuine need for general deterrence here.” Investigators discovered Ford made the threats numerous times last year over an Instagram account started by his brother to which Ford gained access. Prosecutors also said Ford made death threats against President Joe Biden and “a CEO of a major technology company.” Ford was not charged for those allegations.
His attorney, Jason Troia of Omaha, had sought a shorter sentence. He said Ford had a favorable employment record, the threats were short lived and out of character and that Ford made the threats under duress because COVID-19 vaccine mandates fueled his antigovernment sentiment.
U.S. District Judge John M. Gerrard rejected those pleas, sayng there’s “nothing special” about being steadily employed and countering that Ford made 18 serious threats over a three-month span.
As for Ford’s threats being coerced by vaccine mandates, “This argument is complete nonsense,” Gerrard said.
Prosecutors said Ford sent Griswold a series of threatening messages over Instagram in August. One read, “Do you feel safe? You shouldn’t.” Another read: “Your security detail is far too thin and incompetent to protect you. This world is unpredictable these days … anything can happen to anyone.”
Federal officials said there was little to explain why Ford would make such threats, noting he has a loving relationship with his family and fiancé, is in good health and earned a good living.
“Although the government does not currently have reason to believe that defendant will commit similar offenses here in the future, threats to elections workers across the country are an ongoing and very serious problem,” prosecutors said.
They added that one recent survey found one in six election officials have experienced threats because of their job, and 77 percent said they feel the volume of threats has increased in recent years.
The judge said he reduced Ford’s sentence to 18 months only because he has no criminal history and his remorse appears genuine.
“These types of threats are not within the mainstream of public discourse,” Gerrard said. “They’re not even close to normal, and I will do nothing to normalize it.”
Also on Thursday, the Justice Department announced the arrest of Mark Rissi, 64, of Hiawatha, Iowa, on suspicion of leaving a voicemail in September 2021 for Republican Maricopa County Supervisor Clint Hickman. Prosecutors say Rissi’s message threatening to lynch Hickman.
“This wasn’t a prank call. This wasn’t protected speech. This was a serious threat to me and my family,” Hickman said in a statement Thursday, which also called out other Arizona leaders for their silence as he and election officials have endured two years of threats.
Prosecutors say Rissi left a voicemail weeks later with the Arizona Attorney General claiming the 2020 general election in Arizona was fraudulent and telling prosecutors, “Do your job … or you will hang with those (expletive) in the end. We will see to it. Torches and pitchforks. That’s your future.”
Election officials in Arizona and other battleground states have been subjected to threats and intimidation by some Trump supporters since the 2020 election.
Rissi — who was to appear in an Iowa federal court Thursday — faces up to five years in prison if convicted of each of two counts of making a threatening interstate communication and up to two years for a single count of making a threatening telephone call.
Rissi’s case did not appear in online court records Thursday, and it wasn’t clear whether he yet had an attorney.