A far-right group that purports to recruit military and law enforcement veterans to provide personal bodyguards to Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn and other top conspiracy theorists revamped itself last month as an “intelligence, investigations, security and support” firm—shortly before the House Jan. 6 committee subpoenaed its leader.
Between Nov. 1 and Nov. 19, multiple social-media accounts associated with a California-based company calling itself “The Shepherd Group” went live, as did a website hawking its “holistic, boutique approach” to digital forensics, physical security, surveillance/counter-surveillance, and corporate intelligence.
“Our clients include private individuals and corporations, law-enforcement agencies and the U.S. Government with a focus on missions that strive toward the betterment of the Republic and humanity,” the page reads, although it provides no list of past jobs or customers.
But a little digging reveals that the Shepherd Group is not entirely new: rather, it appears to be a front for the militant group 1st Amendment Praetorian, previously a volunteer outfit that has deployed its self-described force of former armed forces and police personnel as security for right-wing leaders and events. The group’s name derives from the elite cadre of Roman soldiers who served as the emperor’s personal retinue.
Most prominently, the modern outfit chaperoned the conservative star-studded rally on D.C.’s Freedom Plaza on the eve of the Capitol riot. Experts suggested the pivot to a for-profit business model might represent a bid for legitimacy in the face of public scrutiny. After all, the shift came just weeks ahead of the order for its founder to appear before Congress, though it is unclear whether this timing was deliberate or fortuitous.
The address that the Shepherd Group—which also purports to consist entirely of ex-police and service members—lists on its website is the same UPS mailbox in the Los Angeles suburb of Calabasas that 1st Amendment Praetorian LLC used when it filed to become a federal vendor last year. Those same filings identified “The Shepherd Group,” which appears to have never received a government contract, as a trade name for 1st Amendment Praetorian. 1st Amendment Praetorian head Robert Patrick Lewis, a decorated former Green Beret, identifies himself as CEO of the Shepherd Group on his LinkedIn, and his initials adorn posts on the Shepherd Group’s blog.
It was Lewis whom the House committee subpoenaed on Nov. 23, four days after he authored his first blog post on the Shepherd Group’s page. The subpoena drew heavily on The Daily Beast’s investigation into the group in June, as well as an article Vice published a week later, noting that Lewis had contact with Flynn and with Ali Alexander, an organizer of the rally that precipitated the attack on Congress. It also alluded to Lewis’ social-media cheerleading of the rioters, which he previously told The Daily Beast he did from the Willard Hotel, where various Trump allies had established a “war room” that day. Lewis has denied coming anywhere near the U.S. Capitol on the day of the riot.
“The investigation and public accounts have revealed credible evidence of your involvement, and the involvement of 1st Amendment Praetorian, in the events within the scope of the Select Committee’s inquiry,” wrote Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS).
Attempts to reach Flynn—who has also been subpoenaed by the House panel—for comment for this story were unsuccessful. Lewis did not respond to repeated requests for comment, although an unidentified individual responded to a single question sent via the Shepherd Group’s chat request.
That individual admitted the group lacked the licensing necessary to operate a security firm in California, which local authorities confirmed. They asserted that they in fact were not doing business in the Golden State, as it “is too cost and regulatory prohibitive for our taste.” They did not answer questions about why, then, the website and corporate filings show the company being based in California, or about where they had in fact obtained licensing.
They also declined to say how 1st Amendment Praetorian LLC, which handles online donations from supporters of the group’s volunteer political activities, separates contributions from the Shepherd Group’s business revenues.
“Based on our upcoming lawsuits against you, it’s probably best that I refrain from communicating with you,” the anonymous website operator wrote. “We’ll be doing plenty of that through lawyers in the near future.”
The House subpoena gave Lewis until Dec. 7 to produce documents and to appear for deposition by Dec. 16. A spokesperson for the committee did not answer whether Lewis had so far complied, or signaled in any manner that he planned to cooperate.
Extremism experts The Daily Beast consulted warned that the launch of the security firm is likely a bid for growth and credibility—just at the moment 1st Amendment Praetorian faces political and legal pressure from the House. Chuck Tanner, research director for the nonprofit Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights, noted that similar organizations like the Oath Keepers and right-wing sheriffs’ groups also offer training and present themselves as a protective service as a means of expanding further into the mainstream.
“Being a security firm and not a far-right paramilitary outfit can give you more legitimacy in that respect, for monetizing and recruiting, and putting on a public face as a more respectable entity,” Tanner said. “There’s a long history of violence stemming from far-right paramilitary organizations. So anything that can foster recruitment, or give them legitimacy, or inflate their sense of power potentially amps up the threat.”
Particularly worrisome to Tanner was Lewis’ open promotion of various conspiracy theories, including about a supposed “antifa Tet Offensive” that was supposed to coincide with last year’s election, and more recently about vaccines, Jeffrey Epstein, and supposed anarchist and Black Lives Matter “agent provocateurs” he has blamed for the insurrection.
“It’s terrifying: you combine the conspiracy framework that a lot of these groups operate under with far-right ideas and weapons training,” Tanner said.
Meanwhile, former assistant U.S. Attorney Mary McCord—now executive director of Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown Law—noted that the rebranding as a security firm fits another pattern of behavior for paramilitary organizations. McCord said that state and federal statutes forbid the raising and training of militias not subordinate to civilian authorities. This means many organizations that are, in effect, private fighting forces must identify otherwise.
“It is consistent with the M.O. of other militia groups to brand themselves not as militia groups,” said McCord, best known for spearheading civil suits against paramilitaries involved in the deadly 2017 Charlottesville rally. “These are all kinds of variants on that theme, of creating a veneer of legitimacy for what is an unlawful private militia group.”