Less than two months after he pleaded guilty to storming the US Capitol, Texas resident Daniel Goodwyn appeared on Tucker Carlson’s then-Fox News show and promoted a website where supporters could donate money to Goodwyn and other rioters whom the site called “political prisoners”.
The Justice Department now wants Goodwyn to give up more than US$25,000 (RM115,187) he raised – a clawback that is part of a growing effort by the government to prevent rioters from being able to personally profit from participating in the attack that shook the foundations of American democracy.
An Associated Press review of court records shows that prosecutors in the more than 1,000 of the Jan 6, 2021, criminal cases are increasingly asking judges to impose fines on top of prison sentences to offset donations from supporters of the Capitol rioters.
Dozens of defendants have set up online fundraising appeals for help with legal fees, and prosecutors acknowledge there’s nothing wrong with asking for help for attorney expenses. But the US Justice Department has, in some cases, questioned where the money is really going because many of those charged have had government-funded legal representation.
Most of the fundraising efforts appear on GiveSendGo, which bills itself as “The #1 Free Christian Fundraising Site” and has become a haven for Jan 6 defendants barred from using mainstream crowdfunding sites, including GoFundMe, to raise money. The rioters often proclaim their innocence and portray themselves as victims of government oppression, even as they cut deals to plead guilty and cooperate with prosecutors.
Their fundraising success suggests that many people in the United States still view Jan 6 rioters as patriots and cling to the baseless belief that Democrats stole the 2020 presidential election from Donald Trump. The former president himself has fueled that idea, pledging to pardon rioters if he is elected.
Markus Maly, a Virginia man scheduled to be sentenced next month for assaulting police at the Capitol, raised more than US$16,000 (RM73,720) from an online campaign that described him as a “January 6 P.O.W.” and asked for money for his family. Prosecutors have requested a US$16,000 (RM73,720)-plus fine, noting that Maly had a public defender and did not owe any legal fees.
“He should not be able to use his own notoriety gained in the commission of his crimes to ‘capitalise’ on his participation in the Capitol breach in this way,” a prosecutor wrote in court papers.
So far this year, prosecutors have sought more than US$390,000 (RM1.79mil) in fines against at least 21 riot defendants, in amounts ranging from US$450 (RM2,073) to more than US$71,000 (RM327,132), according to the AP's tally.
Judges have imposed at least US$124,127 (RM571,915) in fines against 33 riot defendants this year. In the previous two years, judges ordered more than 100 riot defendants to collectively pay more than US$240,000 (RM1.10mil) in fines.
Separately, judges have ordered hundreds of convicted rioters to pay more than US$524,000 (RM2.41mil) in restitution to the government to cover more than US$2.8mil (RM12.90mil) in damage to the Capitol and other Jan 6-related expenses.
More rioters facing the most serious charges and longest prison terms are now being sentenced. They tend to also be the prolific fundraisers, which could help explain the recent surge in fines requests.
Earlier this month, the judge who sentenced Nathaniel DeGrave to more than three years in prison also ordered him to pay a US$25,000 (RM115,187) fine. Prosecutors noted that the Nevada resident “incredibly” raised over US$120,000 (RM552,900) in GiveSendGo fundraising campaigns that referred to him as “Beijing Biden’s political prisoner” in “America’s Gitmo” – a reference to the Guantanamo Bay detention center.
“He did this despite seeking to cooperate with the government and admitting he and his co-conspirators were guilty since at least November 2021,” a prosecutor wrote.
Lawyer William Shipley, who has represented DeGrave and more than two dozen other Jan 6 defendants, said he advises clients to avoid raising money under the auspices of being a political prisoner if they intend to plead guilty.
“Until they admit they committed a crime, they’re perfectly entitled to shout from the rooftops that the only reason they’re being held is because of politics,” Shipley said. “It’s just First Amendment political speech.”
Shipley said he provided the judge with documentation showing that DeGrave raised approximately US$25,000 (RM115,187) more than what he paid his lawyers.
“I’ve never had to do it until these cases because I’ve never had clients that had third-party fundraising like this,” Shipley said. “There’s a segment of the population that is sympathetic toward the plight of these defendants.”
GiveSendGo co-founder Heather Wilson said her site’s decision to allow legal defense funds for Capitol riot defendants “is rooted in our society’s commitment to the presumption of innocence and the freedom for all individuals to hire private attorneys”.
The government's push for more fines comes as it reaches a milestone in the largest federal investigation in American history: Just over 500 defendants have been sentenced for Jan 6 crimes.
Judges aren’t rubber-stamping prosecutors’ fine requests.
Prosecutors sought a more than US$70,000 (RM322,525) fine for Peter Schwartz, a Kentucky man who attacked police officers outside the Capitol with pepper spray and a chair. US District Judge Amit Mehta sentenced Schwartz this month to more than 14 years in prison – the longest so far in a Capitol riot case – but didn't impose a fine.
Prosecutors suspect Schwartz tried to profit from his fundraising campaign, “Patriot Pete Political Prisoner in DC.” But his lawyer, Dennis Boyle, said there is no evidence of that.
The judge “basically said that if the money was being used for attorneys' fees or other costs like that, there was no basis for a fine,” Boyle said.
A jury convicted romance novel cover model John Strand of storming the Capitol with Dr. Simone Gold, a California physician who is a leading figure in the anti-vaccine movement. Now prosecutors are seeking a US$50,000 (RM230,375) fine on top of a prison term for Strand when a judge sentences him on Thursday.
Strand has raised more than US$17,300 (RM79,709) for his legal defense without disclosing that he has a taxpayer-funded lawyer, according to prosecutors. They say Strand appears to have “substantial financial means,” living in a home that was purchased for more than US$3mil (RM13.82mil) last year.
“Strand has raised, and continues to raise, money on his website based upon his false statements and misrepresentations on the events of January 6,” prosecutors wrote.
Goodwyn, who appeared on Carlson’s show in March, is scheduled to be sentenced next month. Defense lawyer Carolyn Stewart described prosecutors are “demanding blood from a stone" in asking for the US$25,000 (RM115,187) fine.
“He received that amount in charity to help him in his debt for legal fees for former attorneys and this for unknown reasons is bothersome to the government,” Stewart wrote. – AP