How Wild Accusations Tore The Arizona GOP Apart

Posted by

Since the 2020 elections, Arizona has been ground zero for wild conspiracy theories about supposed voter fraud leading to Joe Biden’s victory. The claims gripped state Republicans to the point that nearly the entire slate of GOP midterm candidates for statewide office last year consisted of election deniers. To this day, Kari Lake, who lost the governor’s race, maintains that she is actually Arizona’s governor now.

Even after getting washed out in the midterms, state Republicans can’t quit these outlandish theories — and now, it has thrown the party into chaos. For the past two weeks, Republicans have faced wild accusations of bribery, money laundering and election fixing — from their own supporters. Their conspiracy theories involve a cast of bad guys ranging from a Mexican drug cartel to the “Mormon mafia.”

The allegations are all thanks to John Thaler and Jacqueline Breger. He is a lawyer with a suspended license; she is a Farmers Insurance agency owner and Thaler’s girlfriend and investigative partner. State Rep. Liz Harris invited the largely unknown couple to give a half-hour of unsworn testimony before a joint hearing of the state House and Senate’s election committees on Feb. 23, which, as Harris said during the hearing, was meant to “figure out what it is we need to do to ensure that the voters of Arizona are confident for all future elections.”

Instead, during her testimony, Breger accused everyone from state officeholders to judges, prosecutors and court-appointed medical health care advisers of accepting bribes from a criminal enterprise.

“Given that Arizona is a border state and that drug smuggling and human trafficking is a billion-dollar business, it would appear that having our elected and appointed officials ensure that the cartel enterprise remains open for business would be paramount,” she said, setting off a firestorm that is still burning weeks later. “The cartel will invest substantially to ensure that the ‘right’ people are in key positions so as to further their objectives.”

Following Breger’s appearance — Thaler left the state months earlier due to fears about his safety, he says — the two became instant celebrities among election conspiracy theorists, and Republican politicians now find themselves, some for the first time, on the wrong end of unfounded conspiracy theories and angry right-wing social media mobs.

In short, Breger and Thaler allege, based on no reasonable evidence, that Thaler’s ex-wife and ex-mother-in-law have spent decades forging thousands of signatures, all part of a scheme to launder bribes to politicians and others in the form of single-family-home sales. (It just so happens that Thaler has been in a bitter custody battle with his ex for years, though Breger didn’t mention that during the explosive hearing.) Their evidence is their opinion that signatures on scores of housing deeds and other public records resemble Thaler’s ex’s handwriting.

During Breger’s testimony, she used examples of Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs’ signature to baselessly allege that Hobbs had, for years, taken ownership of property deeds that really were signed by Thaler’s ex-wife, Brittany Thaler. Needless to say, the governor wasn’t pleased, calling the hearing a “circus show.”

But that’s not all: Breger alleged that dozens of public officials were on the take, from judges to state officeholders and everyone in between.

“The City of Mesa is a racketeering organization,” she said at one point, later claiming that nonexistent “phantoms” were employed as attorneys and election officials. According to an 80-page packet accompanying Breger’s presentation, Arizona House Speaker Ben Toma (R) was “just one of many state legislators with documents evidencing the acceptance of bribes through the phony mortgage scheme.”

And after the hearing, Thaler told The Arizona Republic that public records linked to the chair and vice chair of the state Senate Committee on Elections — Republican state Sens. Wendy Rogers and Ken Bennett — “meet the characteristics of those documents used in the money laundering and bribery schemes.”

“Republican politicians now find themselves, some for the first time, on the wrong end of unfounded conspiracy theories and angry right-wing social media mobs.”

Those accusations against Rogers and Bennett seemed to be a breaking point, even for some longtime conspiracy theorists.

Rogers, a hard-right Republican who in the past has allied herself with a white nationalist and called for the construction of “more gallows” — released a statement noting that no one Breger had named actually faced any criminal charges, adding, “this was not the appropriate venue to discuss what could potentially be criminal activity.”

Toma called the hearing “disgraceful fringe theater” and said Harris had invited “unsubstantiated and defamatory allegations” into the legislature. And state Senate President Warren Petersen (R) said that while state Senate Majority Leader Sonny Borrelli (R) had asked to review witness material before the hearing, Breger’s 80-page report hadn’t been included in the documents — and that Borelli wouldn’t have allowed it if he’d seen it.

After a Democratic state representative filed an ethics complaint against Harris on Monday, Toma told The Arizona Republic, “when I’m ready to take action, I will take action.”

Harris, a freshman lawmaker who, in the past, has pushed wild election conspiracy theories and shared QAnon memes, took heat for inviting Breger. In an interview, Breger told HuffPost that she had met with Harris and spent “a few hours” with her ahead of her public testimony. Harris, she recalled, described the duo’s work as “very enlightening” and “pertinent” to her own election integrity work.

And in the days immediately after Breger’s testimony, Harris seemed to stand by Breger and Thaler. The Saturday following the hearing, Harris wrote that “the strength of Thaler’s investigation is not rooted in theory, equations or statistical deviations, but rather thousands of documented falsified transactions.”

Then, she deleted the post, the Arizona Republic reported. And after the outcry from her fellow Republicans, she put out a statement saying that “what was presented at Thursday’s hearing was not sufficient to substantiate these extraordinary claims.”

If these were normal political times, this might have been the end of the episode: A lawmaker invited an unvetted witness to testify, faced bipartisan backlash, then walked back her support of that witness. The Republic, flagging the unified political response to the allegations, noted, “The hearing seemingly gives Hobbs, Toma and Petersen something to agree on after the first months of Hobbs’ administration that were marked by partisan power plays.”

The situation is made more complicated by Republicans’ ultra-thin majority: Toma needs every Republican vote, including Harris, to make a 31-29 majority in the state House. The state Senate is divided 16-14 Republican.

But that wasn’t the end. Breger and Thaler were amplified by a network of right-wing web interview shows where their claims were welcomed with open arms — most prominently by the website Frank Speech, MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell’s platform, which today hosts nearly two dozen videos featuring Thaler, including a half-hour appearance with Lindell.

Lake, The state’s most prominent Republican, also backed the bribery claims, retweeting multiple posts from her campaign account amplifying the allegations, including a message from Donald Trump’s former national security adviser and presidential pardon recipient, Michael Flynn: “This level of deep seated corruption cannot stand.”

The hate rolled in from Arizonans who felt betrayed by Republican lawmakers — even by Harris, who had invited Breger and Thaler in the first place.

“Who’s paying you to throw water on this already,” one user on Harris’ Telegram page wrote.

“U turned ur back so shall I, tootles Liz,” commented another.

On Rogers’ page, users said she sounded “complicit” and that she “must be compromised.”

“I’m done putting any faith in you,” the person wrote of Rogers, who in the past has called for imprisoning county officials and election vendors. “All talk, no action. You are a fraud.”

Pete Santilli, the popular far-right internet radio host and Bundy Ranch defendant, wrote, “Wendy, in case you are not already aware, the public was repulsed by your dismissive public statement.”

Santilli called for a “comprehensive forensic audit” — not of election results, but rather, Rogers’ real estate holdings. An anonymous email sent to state legislators stated, “We the People will no longer tolerate having the truth hidden.”

“If these were normal political times, this might have been the end of the episode: A lawmaker invited an unvetted witness to testify, faced bipartisan backlash, then walked back her support of that witness. … But that wasn’t the end.”

Jeremy Duda, an Axios reporter in the state, observed: “Now that GOP lawmakers have given Breger a platform to air her conspiracy theories, there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle.”

There were, however, also plenty of voices among conspiracy-theory-minded right-wingers who smelled something fishy about Breger and Thaler’s claims.

Revolver News, a key site behind the theory that the Jan. 6 Capitol attack was a false flag event, warned readers against “uncritically repeating an explosive story before we see any evidence to back it up.” Tyler Bowyer, a higher-up at the influential Trump-aligned group Turning Point USA, tweeted, “It doesn’t help the good guys to expose corruption by muddying the waters with inaccurate or false claims.”

Other right-wing media figures expressed deep sadness at the turn their audiences had taken.

“There is a very large group on social media who aren’t interested in anything that doesn’t feed their wishes and hopes for whatever topic,” wrote Tracy “Beanz” Diaz, a QAnon influencer who asserts that both the 2020 and 2022 elections were stolen. “It’s probably the most depressing thing I’ve ever witnessed in this role.”

Indeed, at the heart of Thaler and Breger’s claims is a series of assumptions and missing evidence that renders them incredible.

For example, in several different forums, the pair have alternatively alleged that in October 2020, “witnesses,” “our investigators” and Thaler’s ex-wife herself discovered either 25,000 or 100,000 filled-in ballots — and either $3 million, $6 million or $13 million in cash — stored in rental cars parked at Thaler’s former mother-in-law’s house. Breger told HuffPost that she either couldn’t explain the huge discrepancies between the claims or that they were the result of “guesstimating.” The $13 million figure, she said, was a “typo” she read into the legislative record.

Separately, Thaler insisted to HuffPost that a court had found his team’s signature forgery claims to be credible when it came to judicial corruption. But when HuffPost asked for a court docket number to review that claim, he refused and said, “I can’t tell you why I won’t tell you what it is.”

“There is a very large group on social media who aren’t interested in anything that doesn’t feed their wishes and hopes for whatever topic … It’s probably the most depressing thing I’ve ever witnessed in this role.”

– QAnon influencer Tracy “Beanz” Diaz, on bribery allegations against Arizona politicians

Meanwhile, at least one federal judge has spoken quite clearly about his view of Thaler’s work. Douglas L. Rayes, a federal district judge in Arizona, referred to a complaint Thaler had filed against his ex-wife as a “delusional and fantastical narrative.” In those proceedings, which Thaler eventually dropped, he accused his ex of forging another judge’s signature on multiple orders, including divorce paperwork.

“The Judges’ orders speak for themselves,” Brittany Thaler told HuffPost in an email.

Former state officials have also called John Thaler out: After the lawyer claimed that, at one point, he was “contacting and communicating with” Jen Wright, who was then leading the attorney general’s office’s Election Integrity Unit, Wright denied that story outright, and Thaler walked back his claim.

And despite Breger’s claim during her testimony that “we have verified all our findings with a qualified forensic document expert,” the duo’s handwriting analyst of choice, Linda Mitchell, has not publicly confirmed their claim that politicians in Arizona have benefited from deeds with fraudulent signatures.

Thaler and Breger claimed to HuffPost that Mitchell had privately “reviewed” and “discussed” the claims about politicians with them. “As far as I’m concerned, Ms. Mitchell verified the findings,” Thaler said.

But Mitchell disagreed. In a brief phone call with HuffPost, the handwriting analyst said she had laryngitis and didn’t typically speak to the press. Asked if her work supported the claims Breger had made in her testimony, Mitchell responded, “I don’t know, because her claims are a lot more than — I just don’t know. I think she overshot the claims.”

Breger defended her testimony. “In all fairness to me — she didn’t return my calls, and she didn’t really know what I was claiming,” she said, referring to Mitchell. “I’ll leave it at that.”

Finally, the pair has shown a shocking carelessness when it comes to sensitive documents, even though document analysis is supposedly their bread and butter. After HuffPost alerted Thaler that his ex-wife’s Social Security card was publicly visible on documents hosted on his website, he said he would address the issue “immediately” — which ended up being more than two days later.

Given the alarming credibility issues with Thaler and Breger’s claims and the near-civil war they’ve created within the Arizona GOP, one question hovers above all else: Why did Rep. Liz Harris invite them to testify?

Harris, for her part, hasn’t responded to requests for comment from HuffPost or other outlets. During Breger’s testimony, however, she did make an ominous motion at her throat after Breger disclosed that it was Harris who’d invited her to speak.

Thaler said he didn’t know how Harris became aware of his work and that “we were given only a couple days to prepare for this because we had no idea the committee was going on.”

But Thaler and Breger’s work was floating around Arizona political circles months before Breger’s testimony.

During an appearance on Lindell’s Frank Speech alongside Thaler last month, Mark Finchem, a far-right former member of the legislature who was the unsuccessful Republican candidate for Arizona secretary of state last year, said he first met Thaler “months ago.”

“Everything that I’ve seen and heard up to this date supports what the man has done,” Finchem said. “He’s got solid work product. He’s got an auditor that is meticulously following the money. So when we look at, what $7 million that came into Arizona against me for secretary of state, and against Kari Lake, and against [Republican attorney general candidate] Abe [Hamadeh], it’s like, OK, where did this money come from?”

An organization called the Election Fairness Institute, reportedly run by Finchem, published a blog post last month on Breger’s “shocking” allegations, “which, if true, exposed absolutely bombshell information regarding massive corruption and collusion between American politicians, appointed government officials, and the Sinaloa Cartels.”

Cochise County Recorder David Stevens, who recently assumed all election administration responsibility for his county, is a director of the Election Fairness Institute, Votebeat reported. Stevens did not respond to a request for comment.

And in the days following the 2022 election, Thaler discussed his work with a Republican Party precinct committeeman — a local party volunteer — who, at one point, asked Thaler for any information he had about an election worker that several voters had complained about.

The committeeman, Dom Caglioti, told HuffPost that after Election Day, Republican Party higher-ups and candidates’ teams were tasking committeemen with following up on reports of complaints and potential tips. Thaler was likely one of those tickets, he said.

Thaler shared a text message — from a number purportedly belonging to Caglioti — in which the sender identified as “a friend of Kari and Jeff,” seemingly referring to gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake and her husband.

However, Caglioti said he couldn’t find any evidence that he’d sent the message from his phone — and noted he was not friends with Lake or her husband. But he did confirm asking Thaler about the election worker.

Soon after he began talking to Thaler, Caglioti recalled, a pattern emerged: “Any person you said to him, it’s just like, oh, he has all their home deeds, and miraculously, his ex-wife always signed whatever fake document he said was there. They were all on the take. It was just crazy. You just couldn’t wrap your head around it.”

When he found out Breger had testified before the joint elections hearing about her and Thaler’s “findings,” Caglioti was shocked.

“The fact that it went to a legislature — I think you’d want to be 100% confident, or at least 99%, before you took that step,” he said, adding separately: “It still shocks me that anyone gave him a microphone without flushing out with 100% accuracy what he’s accusing.”

Clarification: This story has been updated to add context about Tracy “Beanz” Diaz’s work.