SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Cowboys for Trump cofounder Couy Griffin confronted a trial by jury Tuesday on charges that he failed to register a political organization without filing related public financial disclosures.
The two-day trial began Tuesday with jury selection in state District Court at Alamogordo, the New Mexico community where Griffin served as an Otero County commissioner until he was banished from office last year for his role in the U.S. Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021.
In 2019, Griffin forged a group of rodeo acquaintances into the promotional group called Cowboys for Trump, which staged horseback parades to spread President Donald Trump’s conservative message about gun rights, immigration controls and abortion restrictions.
But Griffin has resisted pressure to register the group as a political committee, including filing an unsuccessful petition to the 10th District Court of Appeals.
The secretary of state’s office prevailed in a June 2020 arbitration decision that ordered Cowboys for Trump to register as a political committee, file expenditure and contribution reports and pay a fine of $7,800.
State prosecutors accuse Griffin of a misdemeanor violation of failing to register as a political group, which is punishable by up to a year in prison and an additional $1,000 fine.
Contacted Monday, Griffin expressed concern that registering Cowboys for Trump as a political group could lead to reprisals against donors.
He invoked free speech protections and said Cowboys for Trump used donations to travel and espouse support for conservative ideals, without raising money for a political candidate.
“All I wanted to do was speak on behalf of an ‘America First’ agenda, which should all be protected under the First Amendment,” he said. “I don’t want the state of New Mexico to know who has supported Cowboys for Trump. It’s about protecting donors.”
Griffin was previously convicted in federal court of a misdemeanor for entering restricted U.S. Capitol grounds on Jan. 6, without going inside the building. Last year, he became the first elected official to be banished from elected office in connection with the attack on the U.S. Capitol building that disrupted Congress as it was trying to certify President Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory.
In court testimony, State Elections Director Mandy Vigil said that state regulators typically negotiate with political groups to encourage registration without seeking sanctions.
“We have not had to escalate the process for any other political committee,” Vigil said.