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Threats to feds lead to more than 4 years in prison for man convicted in first pandemic jury trial

The judge said Robert Haas turned his thoughts and beliefs into serious threats, adding that “the content was chilling.”

Leonard Johnson appeared at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse Tuesday on a charge of possession of a machine gun.
Robert Haas of Ottawa was found guilty of threatening an FBI task force officer and others. Haas’ jury trial at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse was Chicago’s first jury trial after the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Sun-Times file

A federal judge sentenced an Ottawa man to more than four years in prison Tuesday after he was found guilty of threatening an FBI task force officer and others in Chicago’s first jury trial after the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

A jury convicted 40-year-old Robert Haas in August. His trial became a test run of sorts for new COVID-19 safety protocols at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse. Jurors were spread out beyond the traditional jury box, taking breaks and deliberating in a separate courtroom. Public seating was limited, and witnesses were asked to wipe down the witness stand after their testimony.

After the trial, jurors told the Chicago Sun-Times they were impressed with the protocols. However, the coronavirus’ fall surge prompted U.S. District Chief Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer to again put jury trials on hold late last month. Haas’ sentencing Tuesday took place by video.

Before he was sentenced, Haas told U.S. District Judge Edmond Chang he understood his comments were “obnoxious and they intimidated people,” but insisted “my beliefs aren’t a crime.”

Chang replied: “You are not being punished for your thoughts and your beliefs. That is anathema to the American system. ... You’re being punished because you turned those thoughts and beliefs into serious threats.”

He added that “the content was chilling.”

The events leading up to Haas’ indictment began in January 2018, when the feds say Haas posted threatening messages on the Instagram page of then-U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. State Department agents visited his home in Ottawa to ask him to tone down the rhetoric, beginning a series of interactions in which Haas is alleged to have repeatedly made profane and threatening comments toward federal officials.

For example, Haas allegedly told the State Department agents: “If you’re gonna come charge me for a f---ing internet threat, I’ll go do my two weeks spinnin on my dick and then I might go f---ing visit them. Because they pushed me to that f---ing point.”

He also later told an FBI task force officer, “You are guilty of f---ing treason and you need a bullet in your f---ing head for it.” That comment, among others, led to criminal charges.

Following his trial this summer, Haas argued he deserved a new one. In part, he pointed to the COVID-19 protocols, insisting face masks limited the ability of Haas and the jurors to see each other. Chang shot down that argument in a ruling this week, noting that he repeatedly offered to delay Haas’ trial.

“Haas insisted on going to trial during the pandemic,” Chang wrote.