The Justice Department is asking a federal judge to probe possible financial relationships between members of the Oath Keepers accused of trying to prevent Joe Biden from becoming president and a nonprofit entity run by former Donald Trump attorney Sidney Powell that spread false election claims.
The unusual request follows media reports that Powell’s nonprofit organization, Defending the Republic, has used some of the millions of dollars it has raised through spreading conspiracy theories about the 2020 election to pay legal fees for Oath Keepers members facing trial. According to BuzzFeed and Mother Jones articles cited in the filing, four defendants — including Stewart Rhodes, who founded the self-styled militia group — have taken funds from Powell’s organization.
All four are accused of obstructing Congress’s counting of electoral college votes on Jan. 6, 2021; Rhodes and two others are accused of engaging in a seditious conspiracy against the United States.
U.S. prosecutors asked the trial judge to ensure, in private if necessary, that counsel is complying with legal ethics that bar outside funding for legal defense unless the client gives informed consent. The rules prohibit attorneys from sharing confidential client information with outsiders except under certain circumstances. The government also is asking the judge to ensure that the involvement of Powell’s group results in “no interference with the lawyer’s independence ... or with the client-lawyer relationship.”
Prosecutors expressed concern that Defending the Republic was discouraging plea deals, saying that could be against the interest of a particular defendant. Four charged in the overlapping conspiracies have pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with the government. Several more have pleaded guilty in related cases.
Before making its filing, the Justice Department queried private lawyers representing 10 members of the Oath Keepers. According to the court record, attorneys for four of the defendants said they were not taking any money from Defending the Republic. Attorneys for another three said they were in compliance with the rules but would not say whether they took money from Powell’s group. Attorneys for two defendants did not respond; one declined, saying he would answer any questions asked by the judge.
Attorneys for the defendants did not immediately respond or declined to comment in response to requests by The Washington Post.
Trials for the defendants are set for this fall and in April 2023.
Powell was fined in federal court for filing a frivolous lawsuit challenging the election results in Michigan and was fined in Florida. Powell and Defending the Republic are also being sued in a defamation case by a voting machine company she claimed engaged in election fraud. Powell is appealing the Michigan fine.
Powell has maintained that she was speaking truthfully or was offering legally protected opinions.
Powell has refused to cooperate with a House committee holding hearings on the Jan. 6 attack, but witnesses have named her as someone who pushed false election conspiracies in the Trump White House. The U.S. attorney’s office for the District of Columbia also is investigating Defending the Republic’s financial records.
Powell did not immediately respond to a request for comment.