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Texas A&M Corps Let Cadet Skip Training for Extremist Event

Texas A&M University’s Corps of Cadets allowed a cadet to skip training to provide logistic support for the white nationalist National Policy Institute (NPI) in November 2017, according to emails Hatewatch obtained.

Donovan Davis, an A&M student, wrote to former NPI executive director Evan McLaren on Nov. 1, 2017, asking him to “send a short email to [his] chain of command” to “provide documentation of [his] whereabouts and the reason for [his] absence.” Davis offered to provide security for the 2017 NPI conference, an event the group held yearly in the Washington, D.C., area until 2018. McLaren shared the request with Gregory Conte, who held important positions inside white nationalist organizations Richard Spencer led until Conte’s multiple resignations in July and August 2018. Conte sent Davis’ captains a memo to miss training, according to the emails.

McLaren publicly disavowed white nationalism in April 2022. He shared the emails with Hatewatch. McLaren told Hatewatch he remembered meeting Davis and that his records showed he attended the 2017 NPI conference. Data brokers also linked Davis’ phone number to an address at Texas A&M University.

Davis’ attendance at the 2017 conference raises questions about A&M Corps of Cadets and the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) lack of vetting for extremist organizations and requests involving their cadets. The identities of those in NPI were all publicly available when Conte sent Davis’ captains the memo. Although Conte sent the email from an outside limited liability company (LLC), the registration for the LLC was publicly available and featured Conte’s name.

Davis and the captains he listed in his email did not respond to requests for comment.

Gray areas

The extent of Davis’ participation in the Corps of Cadets, a military-styled student organization, is unclear. Amy Thompson, A&M Corps’ assistant commandant of marketing and communications, told Hatewatch that all ROTC cadets are members of the Corps of Cadets, but not every cadet is a member of ROTC, which falls under the purview of the Department of Defense (DoD).

A&M’s program offers healthy incentives for cadets to join. These include full-time “scholastic performance specialists” to advise cadets and scholarships available only to ROTC students.

Thompson explained that ROTC courses are mandatory for all cadets during the first three semesters at A&M, per an agreement between the university and the DoD. Cadets can then choose to continue in ROTC. Thompson said she was unsure if that meant all cadets fell under Title X, the portion of U.S. code that outlines the roles of the military – including ROTC – in society.

The LinkedIn page of one of the captains Davis listed shows he led Company F-2. On social media, this company calls itself “an Army ROTC outfit in the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets.” However, Thompson said that Company F-2 is not an Army ROTC outfit but is a brigade unit inside the Corps. Brigade units are broadly affiliated with the Army. And a cadet could be in Company F-2 while taking the required ROTC classes for the first three semesters, according to Thompson.

Company F-2 cadets may join the Army “through Army ROTC,” Thompson said, but “Company F-2 would not facilitate that process. Army ROTC would own and facilitate that cadet’s path to commission.” Also, a cadet may contract with any branch of the military and not be required to change their brigade. For example, a Company F-2 cadet could contract with the Navy but stay in Company F-2, Thompson said.

Thompson said that because the Corps of Cadets is a student organization, it cannot monitor students’ activities that the First Amendment protects. “We as an organization do not capture a student’s involvement in activities outside the university, even if student’s involvement outside the university is self-reported,” she said.

“Because we don’t take that first step, we can’t take that second step” of disciplining students for such conduct, Thompson concluded.

Each branch of the military has its own ROTC program, and the programs account for a huge share of new military officers. The program had provided 1,000,000 officers to the Army as of 2016. The Army said ROTC accounts for 70% of new lieutenants.

The military has taken steps to address extremism in its ranks. But the DoD’s Office of the Inspector General said in May 2022 that “senior officials cannot determine the full extent of extremist activity to adequately address the issue within the Armed Forces” due to the inability to share information between branches.

Hatewatch was unable to find information regarding anti-extremism efforts in ROTC programs. The DoD referred Hatewatch to the Army Cadet Command for comment.

A representative of the Cadet Command told Hatewatch it asks “Cadets to self-report any association with extremist/hate organizations or gangs to enroll in Army ROTC. This is done on a Cadet Application and Enrollment Record Form. Cadet Command does not tolerate extremism, or other harmful behaviors not aligned with the Army Values.”

From security to logistics

In the emails, McLaren expresses confusion as to the arrangement between Davis and Gregory Conte.

Conte wrote to McLaren on Nov. 4, 2017, saying Davis’ request for an excuse for his absence “makes sense,” but he drew attention to the fact that the military will kick cadets out for “any ‘extremist’ activities.” Conte also downgraded Davis from security to such logistical tasks as driving and monitoring. “We don’t need security,” he wrote.

Conte wrote to McLaren on Nov. 6, 2017, that he sent Davis’ “Captain a memo from Praxis saying that we needed him for logistics work.”

“Praxis” was an LLC Conte incorporated on May 23, 2017. Its full name was Praxis Creative Solutions. Conte registered the business in Wyoming. That state dissolved the LLC in 2020 for failing to file required documents. NPI used the LLC to “book venues without drawing attention,” Conte explained to McLaren in a Sept. 17, 2017, email.

The Washington Post reported that the conference took place at Rockland Farms, a winery and events space in a D.C. suburb. The report said a “third-party logistics company contacted Rocklands Farm on NPI’s behalf and “didn’t reveal that white nationalists were affiliated with the event when they booked it.” Rockland Farms kicked out Spencer and his associates once they realized who had organized the event. Emails show Conte used Praxis to arrange the conference at Rockland Farms.

Emails also show that Conte used Praxis to organize events at Michigan State University.

Though Praxis was not widely known, the emails McLaren shared show that Conte’s Praxis email featured his first name. Praxis also had filed LLC paperwork by the time Conte contacted A&M ROTC. These documents are publicly available and feature Conte’s name.

Conte used “Gregory Ritter” as an alias for his far-right activism. But the Atlanta Antifascists collective outed Conte as the man behind the alias in an Oct. 21, 2017 post, 10 days before Davis contacted McLaren.

Low profile

Davis is now a master’s student at A&M’s Department of Soil and Crop Sciences. Hatewatch was unable to find social media accounts or addresses tied to his name other than his mother’s home address and a residence hall on the A&M campus. Hatewatch is unaware of Davis participating in further white nationalist activism.

A&M’s Department of Soil and Crop Sciences is diverse, and Davis is active inside the program. He is the treasurer of the Soil Crop Graduate Student Organization. He won awards for “grad student oral presentation” and “grad student poster” at the department’s April 2022 awards banquet. He has received at least two scholarships in his time with the program.

It is not clear which ROTC program, if any, Davis attended. Hatewatch contacted A&M’s ROTC to request Davis’ records. A representative said the student would have to release those records of his own volition.

Davis specializes in the study of soil carbon and nitrogen fluxes in the Texas high plains, according to his A&M staff page. Nitrogen fertilizer is a necessary component for agriculture in the Texas plains. Davis’ study of nitrogen raises potential concerns about knowledge of fertilizers, which are widely available for purchase but can be misused.

There is no evidence Davis has any intention to engage in violent extremism, nor that he has an ongoing interest in extremist politics after his single known interaction with NPI. But extremists have used nitrogen to make large bombs. Timothy McVeigh, one of the white nationalists responsible for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, made a bomb with ammonium nitrate, a high-nitrogen fertilizer, diesel fuel and chemicals. The explosion killed 168 people. A Washington Post article from 1995 describes how nitrogen bombs are “simple, easily made” and “widely used” in the agriculture industry.

Despite the widely known potential of dangerous uses for nitrogen, regulations on the purchase of ammonium nitrate are few.

Hatewatch contacted Texas A&M’s Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, the Texas State Chemist, the Texas office of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) about the existence of any state and federal programs for monitoring purchases of nitrogen fertilizer.

Representatives of A&M and the Texas State Chemist said there are no such programs. The A&M representative explained vendors can report suspicious purchases.

The EPA and DHS did not respond.

Banner photo: Texas A&M professors salute as the U.S. and Texas flags pass by them during the annual Texas A&M Corps of Cadets Fish Review at Simpson Drill Field in College Station, Texas, on Saturday, Aug. 29, 2015. (Photo by Sam Craft/The Bryan-College Station Eagle via AP Images)

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