By Ruth Conniff
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October 4, 2006
Steve Howards says he used to fantasize about what he’d say to President Bush or Vice President Cheney if he ever got the chance.
That opportunity arrived on June 16, the same day he says he read about U.S. fatalities in Iraq reaching 2,500.
Howards says he was taking two of his kids to their Suzuki piano camp in Beaver Creek, Colorado. They were walking across the outdoor public mall area when all of a sudden he saw Cheney there.
“I didn’t even know he was in town,” Howards says. “He was walking through the area shaking hands. Initially, I walked past him. Then I said to myself, ‘I can’t in good conscience let this opportunity pass by.’ So I approached him, I got about two feet away, and I said in a very calm tone of voice, ‘Your policies in Iraq are reprehensible.’ And then I walked away.”
Howards says he knew the Administration has a “history of making problems” for people who protest its policies, so he wanted to leave off at that.
But the Secret Service did not take kindly to his comment.“About ten minutes later, I came back through the mall with my eight-year-old son in tow,” Howards recalls, “and this Secret Service man came out of the shadows, and his exact words were, ‘Did you assault the Vice President?’ ”
Here’s how Howards says he responded: “No, but I did tell Mr. Cheney the way I felt about the war in Iraq, and if Mr. Cheney wants to be shielded from public criticism, he should avoid public places. If exercising my constitutional rights to free speech is against the law, then you should arrest me.”
Which is just what the agent, Virgil D. “Gus” Reichle Jr, proceeded to do.
“He grabbed me and cuffed my hands behind my back in the presence of my eight-year-old son and told me I was being charged with assault of the Vice President,”Howards recalls.
He says he told the agent, “I can’t abandon my eight-year-old son in a public mall.”
According to Howards, Reichle responded: “We’ll call Social Services.” Before that could happen, however, “my son ran away and found my wife,” who was nearby, Howards says.
“First of all, I was scared,” Howard recalls. “They wouldn’t tell my wife where they were taking me. Second of all, I was incredulous this could be happening in the United States of America. This is what I read about happening in Tiananmen Square. They hauled me away to Eagle County jail and kept me with my hands cuffed behind my back for three hours.”
At the jail, the charge against him was reduced to harassment, he says, and he was released on $500 bond. The Eagle County DA’s office eventually dropped that charge.
On October 3, Howards sued Reichle for depriving him of his First Amendment right of free speech and his Fourth Amendment right to be protected from illegal seizure.
Howards and his attorney, David Lane, have not demanded a specific dollar amount.
“We will go to trial and let a Colorado jury decide what type of damages are appropriate,” says Howards. “This isn’t about anything I did. This about what I said. There is a frontal assault occurring on our constitutional right to free speech. We brought this suit because of our belief that this Administration’s attempt to suppress free speech is a greater threat to the long-term integrity of this nation than ten Osama bin Ladens.”
Reichle did not return my call for comment. Nor did he respond to The New York Times in its article on this incident.
Lon Garner, special agent in charge at the Secret Service’s Denver office, says he has “no reaction” to the lawsuit. “It’s in litigation,” he says. “We have no comment.”
Before his encounter with Cheney, Howards says he had a clean record.
“I was never arrested before,” he says. “I don’t have so much as a speeding ticket.”