Before he claimed to have evidence that the voting machines had been fixed for Joe Biden; before that claim won him an audience with advisers close to Donald Trump during the week of the Capitol insurrection; before he built a following rapt for his calls to execute “traitors” who do not share his political beliefs; before he suggested educators exposing children to LGBTQ material be dragged “behind the car till parts of them fall off”; before he launched a political action organization with an associated armed group; before he sat down in a room with Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir – before any of that, Joe Oltmann sold used cars.
As a business, Millennium Autosports LLC suited Mr. Oltmann, a Colorado entrepreneur with a taste for motorcycles and luxury SUVs.
It didn’t last long, vanishing with the dealership licence he surrendered when he admitted he sold vehicles without delivering titles. Soon after, he filed for bankruptcy.
Mr. Oltmann is a litigious businessman who regularly carries a concealed firearm and has been involved in 52 different court cases in Colorado, state records show. A court declared him a car thief. He is also the founder of a digital marketing company whose growth won Mr. Oltmann a 2020 nominee for an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award. Colleagues applaud his business smarts and generosity.
But it is in politics where his salesmanship and entrepreneurial instincts have seen their greatest return. Mr. Oltmann has fashioned himself into a part of a right-wing anti-establishment movement whose continued growth has mirrored and sustained the political fortunes of Donald Trump. Mr. Oltmann has little faith in modern U.S. democracy, and sees that any second coming of Mr. Trump will be founded on once again distilling electoral fortune from the large numbers of Americans whose hostility toward authority has only increased through the dislocations of the pandemic – and under the leadership of a Democratic president who has proven unable to meaningfully alter the fraying of his country’s social contract. The number of people who question Mr. Biden’s victory has remained firm since the 2020 election, with some polls showing a slight increase. Surveys have shown as many as two-thirds of Republicans distrust the election.
Mr. Oltmann, 47, a soft-spoken man with a trim beard and the muscled frame of a football quarterback, is among the alchemists stirring that political ferment, one of dozens of figures who have used podcasts, conspiracies and claims of personal expertise to grow their influence and militate against systems and authorities they refuse to trust. He has claimed to have “smoking gun” evidence of electoral tampering by an executive at Dominion Voting Systems, a company founded in Canada that now has a roughly 40-per-cent market share for digital ballot-counting systems in the U.S.
But in seeding doubt about the vote, he forms part of a small but potent chorus of voices seeking to delegitimize the systems in place for the selection of American leadership
His allegations have been challenged by numerous lawsuits – against himself, the Donald Trump campaign and right-leaning media outlets.
But the perch Mr. Oltmann has secured alongside other prominent members of the far right, including close Trump associates like former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, has given him a platform to advocate violence in ways that have worried even former allies. In public, Mr. Oltmann regularly invokes death as a penalty for treason.
“Traitors to our country, who are destroying the very spirit of our nation,” should be hung, he said in a Facebook video posted in December. “And frankly, I will go out and buy some wood and I will build the gallows. Because right now we have to be bold, we have to hold people accountable.”
In private, Mr. Oltmann’s rhetoric is even more “ominous,” said Patrick Byrne, the former head of Overstock.com, who publicly denounced Mr. Oltmann in February.
Mr. Oltmann “will find the first opportunity he can” to ask: “When are we taking to the streets? When are the bullets going to start flying?” Mr. Byrne said in an online broadcast.
Yet at a time when Mr. Trump is once again drawing huge crowds such a warning has done little to diminish Mr. Oltmann’s standing.
Instead, he has found his influence growing, as a self-professed “research junkie” who asserts expertise on matters as diverse as genomics, the economy and data science, and who delivers his findings to a Telegram audience of more than 60,000 and on a podcast that boasts, he says, a million downloads a month.
He is a part-owner of a gun shop and a founder of FEC United, a political advocacy group with ties to the Republican Party and the United American Defense Force, an associated group whose armed members stand guard over FEC meetings at churches.
What that means is, at a fractious time in U.S. political history, Mr. Oltmann is a man with access to an armoury, a militia, lawyers, a microphone – and a history of threatening violence when things don’t go his way.
Mr. Oltmann has openly discussed the prospect of government critics making their own arrests, holding “our own tribunals” and conducting executions.
In his frequent invocations of violence, in particular against those on the political left, critics say Mr. Oltmann is making normal a conversation that has raised fears of future bloodshed. Even the U.S. medical establishment are “murderers,” he said in an interview, for refusing to prescribe ivermectin – dismissed by health officials as ineffective and potentially toxic – to COVID-19 patients.
“I don’t advocate for violence,” Mr. Oltmann said. “But if we’re at war, violence is the thing that is used in war. Period.”
“Would I say there’s going to be a civil war?” he adds. “I would not count it out.”
Mr. Oltmann starts every morning with biblical reflection and ends every night between the covers of a book. Over the past two decades, he says he has read 2,500 books. It’s a list that includes The Book of Joy, written by the 14th Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, which he once gifted to colleagues.
But from his earliest days, Mr. Oltmann has delighted in a fight. And it was his brushes with authority that helped to cement a mistrust of those in power, through a childhood where he was called racial slurs and an adulthood in which he has been willing to steal for his own gain, deny responsibility for wrongdoing and explode in anger at those who exposed his past.
Born into a white family, he was still in elementary school when his divorced mother remarried a Black man, thrusting him into a mixed-race home. His childhood was one of occasional deprivation and frequent discrimination.
Woodbridge, Va., where he grew up, is a small community southwest of Washington, D.C. It is predominantly white, with large Black and Asian populations. In the 1980s, it was not a place that looked kindly upon interracial marriage. Mr. Oltmann’s family was called “salt and pepper.” People labelled him a “half Negro” and “reverse Oreo.” After he moved out, arsonists twice tried to burn down the family home. (Mr. Oltmann would go on to vote for Barack Obama in his first presidential campaign; today, he praises Mr. Trump, but describes himself as anti-establishment rather than conservative.)
In that environment, Mr. Oltmann quickly learned to fight back.
“He didn’t back down. You say anything negative about his parents or about his family, that’s it – it’s on. He’s on you,” said Eric Gaskins, his stepfather.
His family also helped strengthen Mr. Oltmann’s distrust of authority.
In 2017, his brother, Clint Gaskins, who rode a fast motorcycle without a licence, died in an accident. He had been drinking when he was stopped by police. “He took off and the cops went after him,” Mr. Gaskins said. Police pursued him, saying he exceeded 210 kilometres an hour before eventually losing control and crashing.
But the family accuses police of lying about the circumstances of his death. Friends, they say, reported that officers rammed him – an allegation the Virginia State Police denies. Mr. Oltmann sought to prove the family right. “But nobody would give him any answers. He just kept prying and prying,” Mr. Gaskins said. “And it was into a brick wall.”
Mr. Oltmann also found professional reasons for anger against the establishment.
Colorado attorney Dennis Polk first encountered Mr. Oltmann years ago, when Mr. Oltmann was buying cars at auction for Millennium Autosport, his car dealership. In 2003, Mr. Oltmann successfully bid on four cars at Dealer’s Auto Auction of the Rockies. Among them was a used Toyota Corolla, which he agreed to buy for US$5,275.
When Mr. Oltmann came to pick up title, he did not provide a cheque for the Corolla. But he took the car, claiming he paid in cash. The auction said it had no record of such a payment.
Multiple trials found Mr. Oltmann had committed civil theft. He was ordered to pay $48,225, including damages and legal fees. Nearly two decades after he took the Corolla, he has yet to pay, Mr. Polk said.
Instead, he has lashed out at perceived injustice.
Mr. Polk, who represented the auction house, recalled walking to his car after one court proceeding when Mr. Oltmann approached. He screamed “about the judge being corrupt and intimating that I had bought him off,” Mr. Polk replied.
Mr. Oltmann then filed suit against the lawyer. “He sued me for getting a judgment against him for being a crook,” Mr. Polk said. When Mr. Polk prevailed, the court ordered Mr. Oltmann to pay his legal fees. He has not paid those, either.
In 2007, Mr. Oltmann surrendered his dealership licence for Millennium Autosport, denying that he committed fraud but admitting “to the sale of vehicles without delivery of titles,” according to a Colorado Motor Vehicle Board document.
Mr. Polk, the attorney, calls Mr. Oltmann “self-delusional” – and worse.
“He is dangerous,” Mr. Polk said. “I really mean that.”
It was Nov. 9, 2020, less than a week after the U.S. election, that Mr. Oltmann went public with the morsel of information that would make him famous. “We know 100 per cent – know 100 per cent – that this election was rigged,” Mr. Oltmann said, staring into the camera of the Conservative Daily podcast, which is also broadcast in video.
“We’ve actually found a smoking gun.”
He prepared to deliver his findings with nervous excitement. “My hands are sweating,” he said, with a laugh.
Then he began.
“The conversation will be about a man. Eric Coomer. C-O-O-M-E-R,” Mr. Oltmann said.
Weeks earlier, Mr. Oltmann said, he had infiltrated a phone call between antifa activists, leftists bent on fighting fascism. On the call, he said, was a person who called himself Eric. When someone asked about Eric’s identity, another voice responded: “Eric is the Dominion guy.”
Then, Mr. Oltmann said, Eric began to speak. Mr. Oltmann paraphrased the comments he said he heard: “Don’t worry about the election. Trump is not going to win. I made effing sure of that.”
Eric Coomer was at the time director of product strategy and security at Dominion Voting Systems, a Canadian-American company that is a major provider of vote-counting machines in the U.S.
On his own podcast (and, later, on the numerous podcasts and news shows where he appeared as an invited guest), Mr. Oltmann displayed a series of Facebook posts made by Mr. Coomer. Some were profane screeds against Mr. Trump. One was a repost of an antifa manifesto.
The posts depicted Mr. Coomer as a political partisan occupying a critical position inside the architecture of U.S. elections.
“This,” Mr. Oltmann said, “is completely scary.” What took place in the election was “a coup against the American people,” he argued two days later. He accused Mr. Coomer of “sedition,” the kind of offence for which a man could be “sentenced to death.”
Within days, his allegations ricocheted to a Trump administration seeking to undermine and perhaps reverse its loss in the presidential election. On Nov. 19, Sidney Powell, then a lawyer for Mr. Trump, recounted the ways she claimed the U.S. election had been subject to interference. Among the proof points – all of them disputed – Ms. Powell said, was a recording of Mr. Coomer “saying that he had the election rigged for Mr. Biden.”
Such a recording has never surfaced, and Mr. Oltmann now says he does not possess one.
But Ms. Powell’s high-profile recounting inaugurated Mr. Oltmann into the club of the country’s influential election skeptics. In early January 2021, the week of the insurrection, he was in Washington, D.C. He did not join the storming of the Capitol, he says. Instead, he spent his time bending the ear of those who would listen about his claims of electoral wrongdoing.
He found a ready audience, meeting with Mr. Giuliani, lawyers for the Trump campaign and people in the Department of State. Photos show him alongside key Trump supporters at a so-called “command centre” at the Willard Hotel. The day before the insurrection, Mr. Oltmann also spoke at a rally alongside high-profile speakers like conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.
He also very nearly sat down with Mr. Trump, he says. He wanted to give Mr. Trump a recounting of his views on election malfeasance. That meeting never happened.
For Mr. Oltmann, the January 2021 trip to Washington marked an entrance onto the national stage of the anti-establishment American right. He has subsequently been invited to speak at the ReAwaken America tour, whose lineup has included some of the country’s best-known promoters of vaccine and election conspiracies: Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Gen. Mike Flynn, Mr. Lindell, Roger Stone, Mr. Jones and others.
Suspicion of voting machines became such a central motivator for the Trump administration that it even produced a draft executive order, never enacted, for the National Guard to seize such machines.
“There’s a massive amount of fraud in the machines,” Mr. Oltmann says. It’s an argument contradicted by experts across the U.S. But Mr. Oltmann’s certainty that democracy was violated has led him to consider ways to respond – not all of them peaceful.
It has also cemented his view that a confident outsider can make change. The January trip to the Capitol was not Mr. Oltmann’s first attempt to wield high-level influence.
In 2007, the year he surrendered his car dealership licence, he claims to have provided advice to Saudi Arabia leadership that helped resolve economic problems related to oil distribution.
“I don’t have a background in oil,” Mr. Oltmann says. But “business is business is business.” (The Saudi embassy in Washington, D.C., did not respond to a request for comment.)
That led, he said, to a series of other engagements in the Middle East. Between 2010 and 2013, Mr. Oltmann served as executive director of Trac5, an organization dedicated to unofficial diplomacy in the Middle East.
“I met people that people in the U.S. would call terrorists,” he said.
Among them was Sudan’s Mr. al-Bashir, as part of Trac5′s efforts toward “releasing some prisoners of conscience and on the Darfur crisis,” said former Congressman Mark Siljander, the founder of Trac5. (He was sentenced to prison in 2012 for unregistered lobbying on behalf of the Islamic American Relief Agency, a group accused of funnelling funds to al-Qaeda. Mr. Trump later pardoned him.)
Expert scrutiny has not been kind to claims of electoral fraud. Authorities in Michigan, Arizona, Colorado and elsewhere have rejected claims of deliberate meddling. Judges, including some appointed by Mr. Trump, have tossed cases out of court.
Mr. Oltmann himself has landed in court for his allegations.
Mr. Coomer has sued him; Dominion Voting Systems has also launched a series of suits.
Mr. Oltmann “fabricated a conspiracy,” Mr. Coomer’s suit against Donald J. Trump for President, Inc. alleges. It calls Mr. Oltmann “unreliable and his story inherently improbable,” and argues that those who repeated Mr. Oltmann’s statements “legitimized the illegitimate and gave a baseless conspiracy a national platform.”
Under legal pressure, Newsmax has publicly apologized for reporting that Mr. Coomer manipulated the election, saying it “found no evidence that such allegations were true.”
Mr. Coomer denies being on an antifa call or doing anything to affect the election outcome.
To prove that he did not fabricate Mr. Coomer’s comments, Mr. Oltmann submitted handwritten notes that, he says, he took at the time. No other evidence has emerged – no phone or Zoom record of the alleged call, and no recording.
Others have struggled to assess Mr. Oltmann’s statements, particularly those regarding his claims that algorithms inside voting machines can steal elections. Rob Graham, a cybersecurity expert with Errata Security has spoken with Mr. Oltmann, but “I still don’t understand his core mathematical claims in detail,” Mr. Graham said. Mr. Oltmann has said he published his findings in the form of “a diagram – a very crude diagram that the public can understand.” What Mr. Oltmann has done amounts to saying, “I have this super-secret ability to detect fraud but let’s not discuss those details,” Mr. Graham said.
Mr. Oltmann, meanwhile, has lashed out at other experts who have investigated elections but found no evidence of mistakes or wrongdoing on a scale to influence the outcome. Harri Hursti, the founder of Nordic Innovation Labs, is an expert in data security who participated in an election audit in New Hampshire. That audit found 400 improperly counted ballots because of a borrowed folding machine, but “no basis to believe” the vote was tainted by partisan bias.
Mr. Hursti sees Mr. Oltmann as part of a small group normalizing violence. Mr. Oltmann has even intimated that he placed Mr. Coomer under surveillance. “We know where he is,” he said on a podcast.
Mr. Oltmann himself keeps day-and-night security. He has surrounded his bed with metal plates for protection. He has received death threats. Someone mailed an unknown powder to his house.
He says he regrets nothing.
“We’ve been warned through history – that if you let evil prevail in your society that you will lose your society. You will lose the essence of your society.”
Last summer, Mr. Oltmann began chatting with Mr. Byrne, the former head of Overstock.com, who has become an important financier of efforts to call into question Mr. Trump’s loss. Mr. Byrne wrote the book The Deep Rig and produced a movie of the same name. In 2021, Mr. Oltmann offered to help boost the movie’s distribution. He said he could “get us 50 million names and raise us $50-million,” Mr. Byrne said in February.
Mr. Oltmann has buttressed his questions about the 2020 election with claims to personal credibility based on his own technical savvy. That expertise is rooted, he has frequently said, in the cocktail napkin where he drew the plans that led to PIN Business Network, the digital marketing company that he founded. PIN, he has said, has built a proprietary technology that can track the “individual DNA of an individual” on the internet.
Building PIN has allowed Mr. Oltmann to call himself an expert in data and system architecture.
But, Mr. Byrne said, “everything Joe Oltmann said came to nothing. Nothing. Nothing whatsoever. Amateurish. His technology is garbage.” (Mr. Oltmann responded on social media by calling Mr. Byrne a “coward.”)
Mr. Oltmann’s own workers have expressed doubts about PIN’s technology. The Globe and Mail interviewed five former PIN employees. The company has been successful, they said. But they described the company’s core tracking technology as so ineffective that PIN instead relies on the standard tools of digital marketing to do its work – using Facebook, Google and commercial data providers like Equifax.
The former employees spoke on condition of anonymity, citing legal agreements that demand no criticism of the company.
Mr. Oltmann himself is no longer at PIN. He said he lost the confidence of the board while he was in Washington, D.C., following his meetings with Mr. Giuliani and others, around the time of the Capitol insurrection.
Three people who worked at PIN said the real reason was that PIN’s chief technology officer discovered troubling files placed by Mr. Oltmann on a company server. Soon after, Mr. Oltmann was asked to resign. He accepted. It’s not clear what the files were.
People who have followed Mr. Oltmann closely say questions about his business reveal something about him – and the kind of person leading the questions about electoral integrity in the U.S.
“Oltmann is entirely within this realm of the political snake-oil salesman, a confidence man who makes up stories to elevate his stature and grift while the grifting is good, until someone actually investigates and disentangles his fabrications,” said Alexander Reid Ross, a fellow at the UK-based Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right.
Friends and critics alike say Mr. Oltmann is frequently generous. He has helped refugees in Colorado and incarcerated youth, and played football with young people from tough backgrounds.
He “has a very bent mind on making things happen in the world,” says Rick Haskell, a former chief financial officer of Mr. Oltmann’s companies, which include PIN.
Mr. Reid Ross, however, points to Mr. Oltmann’s repeated invocation of death as a punishment for treason. That may be founded on a deep-seated belief about what is right and wrong. But it “draws old reactionary tropes into a growing system of armed movements increasingly eager to stage with advanced weaponry in public spaces,” Mr. Reid Ross said.
Mr. Oltmann, for his part, sees himself as a man with the skill to discern problems others have missed – and the responsibility to inspire action.
But the fault for any consequences, he says, lies with others.
“Turmoil is possible,” he said, when “you push people to a place where they have no hope. And we’re almost there as a nation. We’re almost there. They have almost gotten us to that place.”