An unlikely partnership between a QAnon influencer and a Washington, D.C. diner popular with lawmakers has ended in chaos, with the diner’s owner claiming she’s owed $10,000 and the conspiracy theorist wanted for arrest in two states on unrelated charges.
QAnon promoter Richard Potcner’s relationship with Pete’s Diner owner Gum Tong started in late January, when Potcner claimed in a video posted to social media platform Telegram that he had established an “open tab” at the diner. Potcner urged National Guard soldiers guarding the Capitol in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 riot to order meals on his tab at the Capitol Hill diner, once a frequent breakfast spot for former Speaker of the House John Boehner.
As the bills piled up, Potcner asked his 200,000 Telegram followers to send him money so he could pay Tong for the meals. For months after that, Potcner posted videos of himself settling his tab with donated money from his fans. When Potcner’s tab would run out, Tong would continue to serve the meals, only to be paid back later by Potcner.
One day, though, Potcner stopped visiting the restaurant to pay his bill, according to Tong. Tong claims Potcner now owes her $10,000 on an outstanding bill for the meals.
“He got the money from the people,” Tong said, referring to Potcner’s donors. “But we didn’t get the money from him.”
Potcner didn’t respond to a request for comment. In a post on his Telegram account, Potcner made various allegations against Tong, and pointed out that many of the soldiers who were eating at the diner have already left Washington. Potcner also complained that Tong hadn’t given him any freebies of his own, even after he spent $60,000 in donations at the restaurant.
“Gum had me running to Costco, doing errands etc.” Potcner wrote. “Yet ask me if she ever gave me one free meal let alone one free coffee??”
The feud between Potcner and Tong highlights the growing influence a small group of QAnon promoters have over their fanbase, and the money they can draw from them. But Potcner’s purported five-figure debt at Pete’s Diner is likely low on his list of worries, because he’s also a wanted fugitive in Pennsylvania and Maryland, for weapons possession and probation violation, respectively.
Potcner is part of a growing QAnon niche: self-described citizen journalists who film and photograph normal things in Washington that QAnon believers can be “deciphered” to uncover clues about the true state of the country. To the average person, Potcner’s dispatches under the alias “Richard Citizen Journalist” are banal, a series of videos of a broken fire hydrant, a helicopter fly-over, or a hotel lobby. But they carry great import for QAnon fans, who are eager to see signs of a coup or the activities of the pedophile-cannibal cabal they believe controls the capital.
This supposed intelligence has become especially important to QAnon after Joe Biden’s inauguration, as many QAnon supporters buy into the theory that Trump is still president and the Biden administration is a farce being produced on a Hollywood soundstage. Analyzing Potcner’s footage, they hunt for proof that Trump will soon be restored to the White House.
One slogan from anonymous QAnon leader “Q” urges followers to “watch the water.” As a result, Potcner often takes pictures of water-related images—the Potomac River, or water flowing down a gutter—that his followers track with great interest, expecting “the water” to contain some revelation.
On April 14, for example, Potcner posted a video of mild flooding near the Jefferson Memorial. Underneath the video, which has been viewed more than 150,000 times, his followers immediately began to speculate that the rain would flood the mythical tunnel networks they believe exist throughout Washington, thereby killing Trump’s foes.
“The rats will be flooded out of their underground and this tells me the children have been rescued,” one of Potcner’s fans wrote.
Potcner made his name in the conspiracy theory community in the first months of the pandemic as an amateur hospital investigator. He joined legions of QAnon supporters and other conspiracy theorists around the country who went to hospitals to film empty parking lots or units in a misguided effort to prove the pandemic was fake. In one September 2020 video, Potcner ignores hospital staff and enters a restricted area to film hospital staff and patients, only to be escorted out by security. In October 2020, Potcner, in full MAGA gear, was captured in a series of viral TikTok videos ranting to a group of skeptical teens that the virus was a hoax.
Potcner’s activities in Washington have attracted the attention of more than just QAnon supporters. In late April, Potcner was arrested and charged as a fugitive from justice on two charges, one for a weapons possession charge in Pennsylvania and one for a probation violation in his home state of Maryland. Potcner was released from the D.C. Jail, pending an extradition hearing scheduled for June.
The latest charges are far from Potcner’s first brush with the law. In Maryland, Potcner has been involved in numerous court cases, including a 2019 domestic violence order that required him to surrender any firearms he owned, and allegations that he violated a court-ordered protection order.
It’s not clear how much money Potcner’s fans sent him for the diner meals, or how he spent it. Potcner solicited donations to be sent to him directly, rather than through a nonprofit or other group. A flyer promoted on his channel promoted his personal accounts on payment apps Venmo and Cash App, claiming the money would go to support “our troops in Washington D.C.” and “honest citizen journalism.”
The allegations that Potcner pulled a five-figure dine-and-dash on Pete’s Diner have divided his QAnon fanbase, a community that is always on the watch for “paytriots”—a QAnon term for hucksters seen as ripping off QAnon to make money. In a separate Telegram group with nearly 1,000 members, disaffected Potcner fans dissect all of his posts for proof that he’s conned them.
After Potcner pushed back on Tong on Telegram, his fans have deluged the diner with angry phone calls, according to Tong. The diner owner told The Daily Beast that Capitol Police officers who visited her diner have urged her to file a police report about the harassment.
Tong can’t see the ongoing Telegram debate about Potcner and the $10,000 tab because she isn’t on the app, which has become popular with far-right groups amid crackdowns from larger social media platforms.
“I don’t have time to throw in with all those drama and all those gossips on the Telegram thing,” Tong said.