The Army's Edgewood Chemical Biological Center at Aberdeen Proving Ground has placed an engineer on administrative leave after a civil rights organization accused him of having ties to white supremacy groups.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, a national non-profit organization that tracks hate groups, wrote on May 23 that mechanical engineer John Stortstrom was one of "150 white nationalists" who attended an April conference for the American Renaissance Journal, a magazine focused on studying a biological basis for race.
Stortstrom, who is the vice president of the Route 40 Republican Club in Harford County, is also a member of the former Youth for Western Civilization student group, the SPLC wrote.
"There's no question that Stortstrom is very much a part of the racist white nationalist scene, as well as an up-and-coming young GOP operative," the SPLC wrote. "But it is Stortstrom's top-security clearance job at the U.S. Army research facility on the Aberdeen Proving Grounds [sic] in Maryland that is really raising eyebrows."
Stortstrom was put on administrative leave, with pay, on May 28 as a result of the article, ECBC spokesman Don Kennedy said last week.
Kennedy would not give any more details about the allegations against Stortstrom, except to say the investigation is ongoing. He also declined to comment on any free speech implications of the action taken by the ECBC.
"An article came out in the Southern Poverty Law Center and it got back to management, and obviously an investigation was put under way and he was put on administrative leave," Kennedy said in a phone interview on June 26.
Attempts to reach Stortstrom by e-mail and phone have been unsuccessful. He declined to comment when reached through an acquaintance last week.
The Army's Edgewood Chemical Biological Center works with chemical and biological agents in research, engineering and operations for the U.S. Department of Defense. It "has protected the United States from the threat of chemical weapons since 1917," according to its website, and has also expanded its focus to include biological defense.
The allegations against Stortstrom appear to have come to light after he arranged for the Route 40 Republican Club to host Matthew Heimbach, the controversial founder of a White Student Union at Towson University.
Heimbach's group was founded last year and is not formally affiliated with the university.
Route 40 Republican Club president Fred Mullis is adamant that Stortstrom has no white supremacist ties and explained that the club let Heimbach speak May 10 in the interest of free speech.
"John [Stortstrom] is probably one of the most American guys you will ever meet and would never cause anybody harm," Mullis, a Joppa resident, said. "He is just a nice guy. He would never cause anybody harm; he believes in the Constitution."
"I'm Jewish. Do you think I would be with a white supremacist?" Mullis added, noting Stortstrom has worked with a number of black leaders as well. "John is welcome in my house any time."
Mullis said Heimbach was allowed to speak as a registered Republican, and he spoke about both Towson University's Young Republicans and the White Student Union.
"At the onset, we said, 'You know, this is Matthew's position. We don't necessarily agree, disagree, but his First Amendment rights give him the opportunity to speak. We are the Republican Club; therefore, he can speak,'" Mullis said.
In his speech to the local Republican group, Heimbach said recent immigration policies have alienated white voters and said the Republican Party "needs to start recruiting the blue collar base, standing up for white interests and fighting against the Left if our nation is to have any hope of survival," according to a YouTube video of the meeting that had about 3,800 views as of Wednesday.
Mullis said he thought Heimbach's views were more in line with the conservative group Campaign for Liberty than with the mainstream Republican Party.
"At the end of the presentation, we made it very clear that we did not agree with his mantra and he was more 'CPL' and Libertarian than Republican," Mullis said. "We appreciated it, wished him 'mazel tov' [Hebrew for 'good luck' or 'congratulations'] with his program, but the majority of us were not in agreement with what he was saying."
Mullis said he did not think there was anything wrong with Stortstrom working with Heimbach, as far as allowing him to speak at a Republican event.
According to the SPLC, the Republican Club's Facebook page had a photo of Mullis posing with Heimbach, but the photo could not be found on the page when it was checked last week.
Many comments on the SPLC's website defend Stortstrom's freedom of speech and argue he has done nothing illegal.
Mullis said perhaps liberal extremists were trying to undermine Stortstrom by making false allegations about him.
"I guess the fact that Matthew spoke at our club upset someone or some liberal blogger," Mullis said.
Stortstrom, who has a local address in Edgewood, has been active in other local Republican Party events. In late April, he participated in a Second Amendment rally held in front of the courthouse in Bel Air that was sponsored by the Harford County Republican Central Committee in protest to recently enacted state gun control legislation.
Among the approximately 100 people who attended the rally were two state senators and five state delegates representing Harford in Annapolis, including Sen. Barry Glassman who has since announced his candidacy for county executive.
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As reported by The Aegis at the time, the Route 40 Republican Club sold tickets for a raffle of an AR-15 sports rifle during the rally, and Stortstrom was observed and photographed showing off the rifle to prospective ticket buyers.