The claim: Kamala Harris is tied to human trafficking through “Pizzagate” and former aide
A viral conspiracy theory has turned its gaze onto Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., former Vice President Joe Biden’s running mate on the Democratic presidential ticket.
“Maya Harris, #Kamala’s sister Hosting a PIZZA PARTY with John Podesta? This sure would tie nicely if the patriots are about to drop something… #PIZZAGATE” reads a tweet shared Aug. 13 on Facebook.
The tweet includes a screenshot of an email between lobbyist Tony Podesta and his brother John Podesta, a former White House chief of staff and campaign chairman for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential bid. The email with subject line “Hillary pizza party April 10” is among many dumped by WikiLeaks after Podesta’s emails were hacked during the 2016 presidential race. It requests John Podesta’s attendance for a “pizza party at Belmont for HFA on April 10,” which Maya Harris, sister of Kamala Harris and senior policy adviser to the Clinton 2016 campaign, is said to be joining.
“Pizzagate” refers to a conspiracy theory propagated by QAnon, an online movement that has gained traction, especially in the last few months. It first emerged ahead of the 2016 presidential election and claims several high-ranking Democrats are involved in a child sex trafficking ring operating out of a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant.
Similar conspiracy theories about human trafficking link Kamala Harris to a former employee who worked for the California Department of Justice during her time as the state’s attorney general.
“*this is how Kamala Harris and her team kidnapped and ran human trafficking* Bizarre fake police forced included Kamala Harris aide, prosecutors say – LA Times,” reads a screenshot of a Facebook post from Aug. 31, 2017, which was reshared on Aug. 11 and includes three images of the individuals involved.
Q Pin, who shared the tweet featuring the Podesta email, calls itself a “News Personality” on Facebook sharing “perspective of all things Q.” In a comment to USA TODAY, Q Pin stated all its posts were curated and the tweet was not its own. USA TODAY is awaiting comment from the second Facebook user who shared the other claim.
In December 2016, 28-year-old Edgar M. Welch stormed into the Washington pizzeria Comet Ping Pong armed with a military-style rifle and handgun. The North Carolina man had read stories online of abused children being held in secret tunnels beneath the restaurant and felt compelled to investigate, according to an interview with the New York Times. Welch opened fire once inside, searched for the alleged underground tunnels but could not find them. He was arrested after surrendering to the police.
Since then, the “pizzagate” conspiracy theory has been soundly debunked by several news outlets including the Washington Post, the New York Times, Rolling Stone and Snopes. Other QAnon claims of child sex trafficking implicating several well-known celebrities and saying mask-wearing is tied to trafficking have also been found false.
It is unclear whether the “Hillary pizza party April 10” mentioned in the screenshot of Tony Podesta’s email to John Podesta actually occurred. USA TODAY has reached out to Clinton’s office for confirmation.
A fake police organization
In late April 2015, three California residents were arrested and charged with impersonating police officers: 46-year-old David Henry, 56-year-old Tonette Hayes and 31-year-old Brandon Kiel, a community affairs liaison for then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris.
The trio claimed to be the Masonic Fraternal Police Department, an allegedly ancient policing force tracing its roots as far back as the Knights Templar, then yet further, to 3,000 years ago.
As the Sacramento Bee reports, the group came onto the radar of real law enforcement after sending letters to police departments all over California announcing its presence. An investigation was initiated after the trio — two wearing police uniforms — walked into the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s office in early 2015.
Kiel and his associates were arrested on April 30, when multiple law enforcement agencies eventually raided two houses associated with the group, discovering “badges, identification cards, weapons, uniforms, police type vehicles and other law enforcement equipment,” according to the Guardian.
Kiel was charged with six counts of impersonating a police officer and unlawful use of a state ID; Hayes was charged with four counts of impersonating an officer; and Henry was charged with multiple misdemeanors and three counts of felony perjury. Prosecutors later accused all three of perjury and conspiracy to commit perjury by obtaining fee-exempt license plates from the Department of Motor Vehicles.
The case fell apart in April 2016, when Henry, who considered himself the chief of the MFPD, died from a pulmonary embolism. All charges against Kiel were subsequently dropped after his lawyer argued the search warrant used by police during their raid did not include Kiel’s Ford Mustang, which was government-issued, nor his laptop. Hayes pleaded no contest to the misdemeanor charge of unlawful use of a badge and was sentenced to three years probation.
Kiel had been placed on paid administrative leave after his arrest and was confirmed to no longer be an employee at the California Department of Justice as of April 18, 2016. According to Harris’ press secretary, the then-attorney general hardly interacted with Kiel. She was briefed regularly during the duration of the case, stated spokesman David Beltran.
No signs of human trafficking
It appears that while the Masonic Fraternal Police Department was a fictitious agency, Kiel, Hayes and Henry may have been associated with Masonic lodges in California.
Henry was a on-and-off member of a Masonic group known as Prince of Peace Lodge for over 25 years, according to Van Hibler, the group’s leader, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. Henry had approached Hibler, first with the idea of Henry’s own lodge, and later with the concept of a Masonic-specific police force to protect all grandmasters in Southern California.
According to LA Weekly, Hibler had told Henry he was uninterested in protection nor were any of the other grandmasters.
Around 2010, both Henry and Hayes — state-licensed security guards — decided to open a Masonic Investigative Bureau for the purposes of investigating “potential candidates for the Masonic Fraternal Order.” A year or so later, they created their own lodge in Santa Clarita, California.
In records reviewed by the Los Angeles Times, Kiel joined the duo in spring 2013, as the lodge’s chief financial officer. He began working in Harris’ office later that summer.
USA TODAY has determined the website for the Masonic Fraternal Police Department was registered in November 2014; the group began mailing letters to police departments across the state declaring Henry as head of their agency in January 2015. This timeline predates QAnon’s human trafficking conspiracy theories.
A statement released by the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office mentions no other charges aside from perjury and impersonating a police officer. LASD Unit Detective Amalia Hernandez also told USA TODAY via email that during her investigation, she did not come “across any of them being involved in human trafficking.”
And while MFPD’s motivations for impersonation remain unclear, its website suggests its function was purely security and unrelated to human trafficking.
“Grand Masters around the various states are facing serious safety concerns for their Jurisdictions and their family members,” reads the statement which later goes on to say the fictitious agency provides its services to the “Masonic Sovereign Grand Masters and their Masonic Jurisdictions, as well as other Fraternities, Sororities and Greek Organizations.”
A policing or security force within Masonic lodges is unheard of, said Emily Limón, a spokeswoman for the Masons of California in an interview with the Sacramento Bee. The notion contradicts a principal belief within Masonry that “everyone has a responsibility to make the world a better place.”
Our ruling: False
We rate this claim as FALSE because it is not supported by our research. It is unclear whether the pizza party fundraising event for then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, which was set to include Kamala Harris’ younger sister, Maya Harris, as an attendee, actually occurred in April 2016. Even if the event did occur, the QAnon “pizzagate” conspiracy theory has been thoroughly debunked. The three California residents charged with impersonating police officers – among them a low-level aide during Harris’ tenure as California attorney general – also do not appear to have any ties with human trafficking per police investigations and the group’s stated purpose on its website.
Our fact-check sources:
Wikileaks, “RE: Hillary pizza party April 10.”
The Guardian, June 25, “Down the rabbit hole: how QAnon conspiracies thrive on Facebook“
Metropolitan Police Department, Dec. 5, 2016, “Arrest Made in an Assault with a Dangerous Weapon (Gun): 5000 Block of Connecticut Avenue, Northwest“
Snopes, Nov. 21, 2016, “Is Comet Ping Pong Pizzeria Home to a Child Abuse Ring Led by Hillary Clinton?“
The New York Times, Dec. 7, 2016, “The Comet Ping Pong Gunman Answers Our Reporter’s Questions“
The New York Times, Dec. 10, 2016, “Dissecting the #PizzaGate Conspiracy Theories“
Rolling Stone, Nov. 16, 2017, “Anatomy of a Fake News Scandal“
USA TODAY, June 18, “Fact check: Ellen, Oprah, many others are not under house arrest for child sex trafficking.”
USA TODAY, Aug. 11, “Fact check: Mask-wearing not connected to child trafficking.”
The Washington Post, May 6, 2015, “The ‘Masonic Fraternal Police Department’ is not a real police department, police say“
Los Angeles Times, May 6, 2015, “Fact or fiction? Rogue police force claims ties to ancient Knights Templar“
The Sacramento Bee, May 6, 2015, “L.A.’s fake police case captivates, confounds – and captures Kamala Harris community liaison“
Los Angeles Times, May 7, 2015, “Friends puzzled by trio accused of creating fake police force“
LA Weekly, May 8, 2015, “Even the Masons are baffled by Kamala Harris staffer’s fake Masonic police force“
The Sacramento Bee, May 7, 2015, “California Masons seek distance from Masonic Fraternal Police Department after arrests.”
The Guardian, May 10, 2015, “Top hats and gold cuffs: the curious case of California’s fake masonic police force“
KHTS Hometownstation.com, April 29, 2016, “Last Remaining Defendant In Masonic Fraternal Police Department Trial Sentenced“
New York Magazine, Dec. 19, 2017, “The Storm Is the New Pizzagate — Only Worse“
Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, May 20, 2015, “Masonic Police Department Member to be Arraigned on Perjury and Impersonating Officer Charges“
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Falsehoods seek to tie Kamala Harris to human trafficking