LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — A Nebraska man was sentenced Thursday to 18 months in prison for making online threats against Colorado’s top elections official, 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 an 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, launched last year after the 2020 presidential contest amid concerns about 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 it was stolen.
Ford must report to a federal prison Jan. 11 and later complete a year of post-prison supervision.
Ford told the court Thursday he accepts 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.
Griswold said violent threats cannot become an accepted norm.
“People who threaten election officials must be held accountable," her statement said. “Threats are being used to try to intimidate election officials from doing their jobs in an effort to destabilize democracy.
Attorney General Merrick Garland also released a statement declaring, “This sentence makes clear that those who illegally threaten election workers should be prepared to face meaningful penalties.”
Federal prosecutors had sought a two-year prison sentence, citing “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 an unspecified technology company CEO. Ford was not charged for those allegations.
His attorney, Jason Troia, had sought a shorter sentence. He said Ford had a favorable employment record, the threats were out of character and that Ford made them under duress because COVID-19 vaccine mandates fueled his antigovernment sentiment.
U.S. District Judge John M. Gerrard rejected those pleas, saying there's “nothing special” about being steadily employed and noting Ford made 18 serious threats over three months. He called arguments over vaccine mandates “complete nonsense."
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 made 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 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.
Also 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 threatened 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 Thursday in a statement, which called out other Arizona leaders for what he called their silence as election officials 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.