Word traveled fast in tiny Glendale, Colorado, when an undercover FBI agent identifying himself as Charles Johnson began knocking on doors and asking questions.
For nearly a year, as a part of the FBI’s investigation of the armed standoff between a Nevada rancher named Cliven Bundy and Bureau of Land Management agents in 2014, Johnson pretended to be a documentary filmmaker. At one point, he assured Bundy’s suspicious son Ryan, “I want a truthful documentary.” The more than 100 hours of video and audio recordings that Johnson and his team produced while posing as journalists are being used as evidence in criminal trials against Bundy and his supporters. While Johnson was finished with the fake documentary production by the time he arrived in Colorado, he wasn’t done with pretending to be a member of the news media.
It was February 2016, just a couple of weeks after members of the Bundy family and their supporters were arrested following the standoff at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. At the time, Glendale’s civic life was dominated by debate over a $175 million development proposal, called Glendale 180, to create a new nightlife and entertainment district. Glendale Mayor Mike Dunafon has led the campaign to remake the city. An eccentric politician who lives in a home that looks like a castle — it has its own website — Dunafon ran as an independent for Colorado governor in 2014. Wyclef Jean even produced his official campaign song.
But Dunafon’s plans for remaking Glendale have been stalled by a local businessman named Mohammad Ali Kheirkhahi, who runs a Persian rug store on land he owns that would be a centerpiece of Glendale 180. Glendale wanted to purchase the land for the entertainment district, but Kheirkhahi had proposed developing a high-rise condominium tower on the site. The city’s tiny newspaper, the Glendale Cherry Creek Chronicle, opposed the condo development proposal, referring to it as the “Tehranian Death Star.” The newspaper quoted several citizens in its pages expressing opposition to Kheirkhani’s residential development. For reasons that remain obscure, Johnson started door-stopping people who were quoted in the newspaper, according to police records obtained by The Intercept.
On February 20, 2016, Johnson showed up at the apartment of Sherry Frame, the Glendale city clerk. Johnson didn’t identify himself as an FBI agent. Instead, he said he was an “investigative consultant” who was hired to look into an ethics complaint. As part of that inquiry, Johnson said he needed to talk to Frame.
Feeling threatened by the unannounced visit to her home, Frame called police. Detectives soon discovered that Johnson had also stopped by the homes of two people who worked at Shotgun Willie’s, a local strip club owned by Mayor Dunafon’s wife. A police officer called Johnson’s number and left a message. Johnson returned the call and left another message. Nothing more happened, until the undercover FBI agent returned to town on March 15, 2016, and contacted Douglas Stiff, a disc jockey at Shotgun Willie’s. Stiff agreed to meet with Johnson at a local restaurant, and then he too called the Glendale police. Detective Shaun Farley, suspecting that Johnson was working as a private investigator without a state license, suggested setting up a sting. The case became a game of spy versus spy, an undercover cop trying to catch an undercover FBI agent.
According to audio obtained by The Intercept, on the drive to the restaurant, Farley and Stiff worked on their cover story. “Let’s just say we know each other from CU-Denver,” Farley said.
“CU-Denver?” Stiff said. “All right, cool.”
“Just say we had some class together and been friends ever since, for fucking business degrees,” Farley added. “So we share common interest in business degrees, chicks with titties, and music, because you’re a DJ, right?”
“Yep,” Stiff said.
Farley slipped the recording device under his clothing. “I can’t just walk in and set it on the table. Be like, ‘What’s up, dude? Here’s my recorder. Say some stupid shit.’”
Stiff laughed. Then they walked into the restaurant and greeted Johnson, who explained that he was investigating the proposed condo project and community opposition to it. As part of that work, he said he was contacting people who, like Stiff, had been quoted in the local newspaper as opposing the project. Stiff told Johnson that he didn’t like being tracked down and having a stranger show up at his home.
“I didn’t track you down,” Johnson said.
“You came to my front door,” Stiff replied.
“But I didn’t track you down. The person I work for —”
“Who is?” Stiff interrupted.
“She’s a writer,” Johnson answered.
“Who is?” Stiff asked again.
Johnson refused to answer. He explained that he had been hired by a journalist to investigate claims that were made in the local newspaper.
After nearly an hour of talking, with Johnson repeatedly refusing to disclose who had hired him, Farley piped up: “It still seems like you need a license to do this kind of stuff.”
Johnson demurred, saying he was not acting as a private investigator. The undercover cop and the strip club DJ then walked back to the car.
“How often do you have to waste your time like this?” Stiff asked. “Probably a lot.”
“No, it’s not a waste of time,” Farley answered. “He’s about to get pulled over and get arrested.”
“Badass,” Stiff said, excited. “What crime did he commit?”
Farley explained that in Colorado, as of July 2015, anyone doing contract investigations work needed to be licensed as a private investigator in the state.
“Holy shit!” Stiff said.
Another uniformed Glendale police officer then pulled over Johnson, and they agreed to talk at a nearby Starbucks. After interviewing Johnson, the officer let him go, believing that he needed to review the law concerning private investigators before he felt justified in making an arrest. Glendale police officers then reviewed the law, contacted state regulators, and concluded that Johnson was indeed violating state law. They knew from running his plate that he had a rental car that was due back early the next morning. As Johnson dropped off his car, the police approached him. “So I am being placed under arrest?” the undercover agent said.
When he was arrested, Johnson was carrying three different state identification cards, from Tennessee, Hawaii, and Florida, as well as expensive camera equipment. He also had a business card identifying himself as an “investigative consultant” and listing the same Nashville, Tenn., address and phone numbers as Longbow Productions, the fake documentary company the FBI set up to film the Bundys and their supporters. Glendale police booked Johnson and escorted him to an interrogation room, where a camera recorded their conversation. Dressed in blue jeans and a green parka, Johnson maintained his innocence, pointing out that there was an exemption in Colorado law for journalists and that a journalist had hired him to ask questions in Glendale.
“If it was a journalist, what journalist did hire you?” Farley asked.
Johnson shook his head. “And I’m not getting into that because I’m not — because what happened to me, I’m not saying anything about anybody else,” he answered.
The detective followed up: “How did this person reach out to you? How did they even know to contact you?”
“I didn’t know them. From a friend, from a friend who knows what I do,” Johnson said.
None of it added up to Glendale police. So they charged Johnson with unauthorized practice of private investigations and issued a summons to appear in court. Local prosecutors dropped the charges after receiving a letter from the FBI asking them not to prosecute.
It’s unclear what the goal of Johnson’s Glendale undercover operation was or why the FBI’s Denver office decided to use a journalistic cover. “We are not able to comment on the questions you have posed,” said Special Agent Amy Sanders, a spokesperson for the FBI’s Denver office.
In June 2016, four months after this incident, the FBI adopted an interim policy that requires undercover operations involving the impersonation of news media to be approved by the deputy director of the FBI in consultation with the deputy attorney general. As FBI director, James Comey defended the practice of impersonating journalists in criminal investigations but described it as “rare.”
Johnson testified in March in the jury trial of six defendants who had supported the Bundys during the 2014 standoff with federal agents. The trial ended in convictions against two defendants and a hung jury for the other four. Johnson is also expected to testify in the trial of Cliven Bundy and his sons, which is scheduled to begin June 26. The trial may include as evidence video that Johnson produced while impersonating a documentary filmmaker.
The FBI did not respond to questions about Johnson’s arrest in Colorado, including whether it was disclosed to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Nevada.
Bret Whipple, the lawyer representing Cliven Bundy, had been unaware of Johnson’s arrest in Colorado. “I think it’s absolutely material that could impeach the witness and should have been turned over to us,” Whipple said. “He was breaking local law while acting surreptitiously.”