Colorado Springs Police Department has completed its investigation into an altercation between Sen. Larry Liston (R-SD10) and Rex Tonkins, an El Paso County GOP bonus member (voting member of the executive committee, assigned based on the number of voters in the last election), and the husband of El Paso County GOP Chairwoman Vickie Tonkins.
According to a copy of the CSPD case report obtained by the Indy, Liston contacted the police after the Dec. 6, 2021 El Paso County GOP Executive Committee meeting, during which Liston claims Rex Tonkins “chest bumped” him. Due to conflicting witness statements, CSPD’s investigating officer did not find probable cause for further action.
The incident is the latest in a long string of controversies that has plagued Vickie Tonkins since she made an April 1, 2020, post on El Paso County GOP’s Facebook page asking if COVID-19 was a “PSYOP [psychological operation].” Following that post, 17 El Paso County Republican elected officials demanded Vickie Tonkins, who is Black, formally apologize and consider stepping down. That response drew accusations of racism within the El Paso County GOP from former Treasurer John Pitchford. On Aug. 13, 2020, members of the executive committee moved to limit Vickie’s ability to make budget decisions or communicate on behalf of the organization. Vickie narrowly won reelection in February 2021, after drawing criticism from party members for allowing the El Paso County GOP headquarters to host meetings by conservative activist group FEC United focused on filling precinct leadership positions.
On Jan. 30, 2021, a group of four party volunteers and Colorado Rep. Tim Geitner (R-HD19) arrived at El Paso County GOP headquarters at 6 a.m. to verify paperwork at Pitchford’s invitation, according to an email provided by Geitner. Upon their arrival, Pitchford called 911, asking CSPD to remove the volunteers and the elected official for trespassing. No one was arrested or cited as the incident appeared to be civil in nature, according to CSPD Public Information Officer Lt. James Sokolik.
Concerns were also raised over the very short notice of online pre-registration requirements to be completed a week prior to the Feb. 6, 2021, El Paso County GOP Central Committee meeting. During the committee meeting, Pitchford called CSPD on Kay Rendleman, accusing her of trespassing when she photographed unsecured check-in documents. According to Sokolik, no charges were filed as a result of that incident either.
In a March 17, 2021, report, the Colorado GOP Executive Committee ordered a new election for El Paso County GOP officers, and El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder called the election “a sham.” However, following the election of Kristi Burton Brown as Colorado GOP chairwoman on March 27, 2021, GOP Central Committee members voted to overturn the March 17 decision.
On Nov. 23, the El Paso County GOP Vice Chair Karl Schneider filed a campaign finance complaint form with the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office, raising concerns about donations from the El Paso County GOP’s Aug. 6 Lincoln Day Dinner, which featured controversial Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene.
The rift within the El Paso County GOP has been described by party members on both sides as between “grassroots” Republicans — the newer crop of Trump-supporting, election denying, pro-Tonkins wing of the party that includes agitators like Rep. Dave Williams (R-HD15), who is currently challenging U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CD5) — and “establishment” Republicans — relatively moderate, long-time party members like at-large City Councilor Wayne Williams and Senate candidate and former El Paso County GOP Chair Eli Bremer.
According to the CSPD case report, “[Liston] stated after the meeting had ended, Rex again approached him as [Liston] was gathering his coat to leave. He stated Mr. Tonkins had made a fist towards him and he could see fire in Mr. Tonkins eyes. [Liston] stated Rex told him ‘You’re my senator’, ‘I’m your constituent’ and ‘You’re not a Christian.’ [Liston] stated during the altercation Rex came up to him and chest bumped him. I asked [Liston] to clarify what he meant by chest bump, and [Liston] demonstrated Rex had puffed his chest out and pressed his chest up against [Liston]’s chest. [Liston] stated he turned around and walked away. I asked [Liston] if he had felt any pain and he stated he did not. [Liston] stated he was surprised Rex had chest bumped him. [Liston] added he was wary of what Rex could do in the future. [Liston] believed Rex had chest bumped him to annoy, harass, or alarm him … He stated Vickie had admonished Rex twice during the meeting.”
Some members of the El Paso County GOP have suggested that racism may have provoked the encounter, a claim Liston denies. According to the CSPD case report, “Rex said he had a right to speak as he is a bonus member according to the bylaws. He added they ‘hate me because I’m black.’ He said he had ‘never seen’ anything like this, and said he is ‘from the south.’ He went and sat back down. Rex told me the meeting was adjourned, and after the meeting he went to go speak with [Liston]. He told me he asked [Liston] why he kept telling him to sit down. He stated [Liston] walked through him, without saying ‘excuse me.’ He denied making any physical contact with [Liston], though he stated the area was small and [Liston] had gotten into his bubble. Rex described his bubble as approximately 6 inches away from his person. He said [Liston] called him a thug three times. He told me he called [Liston] a fake. Rex denied making any movement at all when he said [Liston] had walked through him. He said there were people around, but he was unable to identify people who might’ve seen the altercation or speak on his behalf. He stated [Liston] and a few other members will ‘lie on you in a heartbeat.’ He told me if there was someone saying there was a physical altercation between the two, that would be a ‘straight up lie.’ Rex stated he cannot lie and said he was being ‘slandered.’ When asked if he had made any movements or gestures when [Liston] had walked through him, Rex said he stood still and did not puff up his chest. He told me [Liston] and other members try to bait him so he didn’t want to react. He added there were security cameras which would have captured the incident.”
As part of the investigation, CSPD also interviewed Schneider, Rendleman, and Jody Ritchie, who has served as the registered agent for various Republican campaign committees and the Coloradans for Western Values Leadership PAC, all of whom could be considered part of the “establishment” faction within the El Paso County GOP, and at odds with Vickie Tonkins’ leadership. Both Richie and Rendleman claimed to have witnessed the chest bump, although CSPD’s investigating officer, upon reviewing video footage of the incident, noted, “Rex did not make a fist as previously mentioned by witnesses during the meeting.”
In an email, Liston said, “Rex Tonkins DID physically assault me and I intend to pursue his actions further.”