KENOSHA, Wis. — An attorney for Kyle Rittenhouse indicated Thursday that he’d pull back from the teen’s criminal defense, hours after prosecutors in Wisconsin sought to block him from participating and alleged in a court filing that his involvement with a fundraising effort “provides ample opportunity for self-dealing and fraud.”
Los Angeles civil lawyer John M. Pierce has been the public face of the 17-year-old’s defense against a murder charge and other counts in the three months since the teen fatally shot two men and wounded a third during summer protests in Kenosha. He also has been an enthusiastic fundraiser, helping to secure $2 million for his client’s bail.
Prosecutors, however, have grown increasingly critical of Pierce’s frequent out-of-court statements and fundraising efforts, which have been aimed at the political right.
In a motion filed Thursday morning, Kenosha County Assistant District Attorney Thomas Binger cited public records and news reports as he alleged that Pierce has “significant personal financial difficulties” and argued that he should not be allowed to represent Rittenhouse because “money that should be held in trust for the defendant may instead be used to repay attorney Pierce’s numerous creditors.”
According to the motion, Pierce filed court records last year that indicated he had no income, monthly expenses of $49,581 and owed about $1.2 million for various debts. He also was sued in July over allegations he breached a rental agreement on a $1.3 million home in Ventura County, California, according to the motion.
Alongside their objections to letting Pierce represent Rittenhouse, prosecutors have alleged that he hasn’t followed Wisconsin’s rules about what lawyers can say about cases before trial. In another recent court filing, prosecutors asked for an order barring Rittenhouse’s lawyers from making out-of-court statements that might sway future potential jurors and complained about Pierce publicly attacking District Attorney Michael Graveley. A judge has yet to rule.
Prosecutors also sought to disqualify Pierce’s colleague, Andrew Calderon.
Hours after the motion was filed, Pierce tweeted: “Effective immediately I am taking over all civil matters for Kyle including his future defamation claims. I will also be orchestrating all fundraising for defense costs. The terrific Mark Richards will proceed in Wisconsin.”
Richards, a Racine lawyer, told the Chicago Tribune it was a joint decision with Pierce. “I will be counsel for Kyle in the criminal matters,” he wrote in an email. “(Pierce and Calderon) won’t be.”
The dust-up over Pierce’s involvement was unusual for the Kenosha County courts, where out-of-state attorneys routinely participate in cases as long as there is at least one defense team member licensed to practice law in Wisconsin.
Pierce could not be reached, and Calderon declined to comment, deferring questions to Pierce.
Before Thursday’s motion challenged the lawyers’ right to participate, Kenosha County Judge Bruce Schroeder had signed orders allowing Pierce and Calderon to represent Rittenhouse. It was unclear whether the prosecutor’s request to disqualify the attorneys would still need to be sorted out, given Pierce’s apparent distancing from the criminal case.
The prosecution’s motion raised questions about the #FightBack Foundation, a group that served as the online fundraising arm for Rittenhouse’s defense. The foundation, which is now focused on challenging the presidential election results, took credit for raising the $2 million needed to free the teen on bail last month.
Prosecutors described it as “an unregulated and unreported slush fund” with close ties to Pierce. He helped start the foundation a few weeks before the Kenosha shootings, but he has told the Tribune he stepped away from its board to avoid any conflicts related to his involvement in the Rittenhouse case.
The prosecution noted Pierce’s calls for donations to the fund and argued that the fundraising could run afoul of Wisconsin’s code of conduct for attorneys.
“This creates a potential conflict of interest for attorney Pierce,” the motion states. “Given his own substantial personal debts, his involvement with an unregulated and opaque ‘slush fund’ provides ample opportunity for self-dealing and fraud. The more that the Foundation raises in donations, the more he may personally benefit. Money that should be held in trust for the defendant may instead be used to repay attorney Pierce’s numerous creditors.”
The #FightBack foundation is led by another lawyer connected to Rittenhouse’s defense team, L. Lin Wood of Georgia. He tweeted last week that the foundation “successfully raised $2M cash bail for Kyle Rittenhouse & funded over $300K for his attorney’s fees & expenses. The foundation used approx. $400K of its general funds for Kyle.” Wood went on to tweet that those who wanted to make future donations should contact Pierce, as Wood’s foundation was focusing on other matters.
As they sought to raise Rittenhouse’s bail money, Pierce and Wood appealed to the political right, where Rittenhouse is popular. The lawyers used their Twitter accounts to ask for funds while also championing other causes supported by some on the right, including the push to overturn President Donald Trump’s election loss through baseless claims of widespread voter fraud.
Wood has been particularly active in trying to undermine the election, including with thus-far unsuccessful litigation. On Tuesday, he tweeted that the country was headed for civil war and encouraged Trump to declare martial law. Wood’s Twitter biography contains a hashtag embraced by followers of QAnon, a right-wing conspiracy theory positing that top Democrats, among others, are Satan-worshiping pedophiles. Wood tweeted in late August that despite his use of the hashtag he is not a conspiracy theorist.
Amid the controversy over Rittenhouse’s legal representation, the teen’s prosecution went forward Thursday as Court Commissioner Loren Keating found there was probable cause to continue with the case. He also rejected Rittenhouse’s lawyers’ motion to dismiss two of the more minor counts — a gun charge and a count of reckless endangerment. The next court date is Jan. 5.
Before his lawyers bailed him out, Rittenhouse spent 2 1/2 months in custody following his shooting of three men with an AR-15-style rifle during chaotic protests Aug. 25. Those sometimes destructive demonstrations came after white police Officer Rusten Sheskey shot Jacob Blake, who is Black, several times in the back at close range.
Rittenhouse fatally shot Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, and Anthony Huber, 26. A third man, Gaige Grosskreutz, who prosecutors have said was armed with a handgun, survived the teen shooting him in the arm. Rittenhouse’s attorneys have argued he shot all the men in self-defense.
Prosecutors also have charged Rittenhouse’s friend Dominick Black with illegally providing the rifle to the teen.
Since the shootings, Rittenhouse and his mother, Wendy, have moved from their Antioch, Illinois, apartment and now live in an undisclosed location. Pierce told the Tribune last month that two organizations — one that supports gun rights and another that backs militias across the country — have given the family a combined $100,000 to help with personal expenses unrelated to the criminal defense.
Pierce previously told the Tribune it would cost “millions” to properly present Rittenhouse’s self-defense claim.
To that end, Pierce tweeted Thursday that he and Wendy Rittenhouse intend to launch a new fundraising effort Friday during an appearance with a conservative news outlet.
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