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‘A propaganda tool’ for Trump: A second federal judge castigates attorneys who filed a lawsuit challenging the 2020 results

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 7/16/2021 Rosalind Helderman
Donald Trump et al. standing in front of a crowd: A supporter of President Trump holds a cutout of him during a “Stop the Steal” rally outside the Georgia Capitol in downtown Atlanta on Nov. 21. (Kevin D. Liles for The Washington Post) A supporter of President Trump holds a cutout of him during a “Stop the Steal” rally outside the Georgia Capitol in downtown Atlanta on Nov. 21. (Kevin D. Liles for The Washington Post)

Just before Christmas, two Colorado lawyers filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of 160 million American voters, alleging a vast conspiracy to steal the 2020 presidential election by the voting equipment manufacturer Dominion Voting Systems, Facebook, its founder Mark Zuckerberg, his wife Priscilla Chan and elected officials in four states — and asking for $160 billion in damages.

The case was dismissed in April, but now a federal judge is considering disciplining the lawyers for filing a frivolous claim — sharply questioning the duo in a Friday hearing about whether they had allowed themselves to be used as “a propaganda tool” of former president Donald Trump.

“Did that ever occur to you? That, possibly, [you’re] just repeating stuff the president is lying about?” Federal Magistrate Judge N. Reid Neureiter asked the two lawyers, Gary D. Fielder and Ernest John Walker, during a hearing to consider sanctioning them.

The two lawyers argued they had a good-faith belief that the election was stolen and did not trust government officials and others who affirmed that it was secure and that there was not widespread fraud.

It was the second time this week that a judge dressed down lawyers who filed cases alleging fraud in the 2020 election, as the legal system grapples with how to hold accountable those who used the court system to spread falsehoods about the vote.

[‘This is really fantastical’: Federal judge in Michigan presses Trump-allied lawyers on 2020 election fraud claims in sanctions hearing]

On Monday, a federal judge in Michigan spent nearly six hours skeptically questioning a group of nine lawyers, including pro-Trump attorneys Sidney Powell and L. Lin Wood, in a similar hearing to determine whether to discipline the group for filing a lawsuit that sought to overturn President Biden’s win in that state.

Boris Epshteyn et al. standing next to a sign: Trump attorney Sidney Powell speaks during a news conference Nov. 19 at the Republican National Committee headquarters in Washington, flanked from left by attorneys Rudolph W. Giuliani and Jenna Ellis. © Sarah Silbiger for The Washington Post Trump attorney Sidney Powell speaks during a news conference Nov. 19 at the Republican National Committee headquarters in Washington, flanked from left by attorneys Rudolph W. Giuliani and Jenna Ellis.

Sanctions hearings are pending in other states as well, including Wisconsin, where Gov. Tony Evers (D) has asked a judge to order Trump and his lawyers to pay the state’s legal fees stemming from post-election litigation.

Meanwhile, a committee of judges in New York suspended the law license of former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, arguing that Trump’s personal lawyer had “communicated demonstrably false and misleading statements” that amounted to an ongoing threat to the public. Giuliani’s lawyers have said they are confident his license will be restored after a hearing.

Legal rules require that attorneys be truthful in court and not clog up the court system with frivolous motions. Lawyers who violate the rules can be required to pay their opponents’ legal fees or can be assessed additional monetary penalties. Judges can also refer them for grievance procedures that can result in disbarment.

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In the Colorado hearing on Friday, the judge repeatedly questioned Fielder and Walker about how much independent investigation they conducted before filing a lawsuit filled with unproven allegations about a wide range of individuals.

He noted that at the time, top officials such as Attorney General William P. Barr and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency had publicly stated that there was no evidence of widespread fraud or election-machine hacking that affected the outcome of the election. Those findings, Neureiter suggested, should have been a “red light for you, at least a flashing yellow light” that more investigation was needed before filing the claim.

Both attorneys said they continued to question the legitimacy of the election and would file the case again.

Walker told the judge that it was “ludicrous” to suggest he and Fielder had done no original research before filing. “It’s offensive to me and my co-counsel,” he said. “We took this case seriously.”

Fielder said the two had a “good faith” belief that the election was stolen, citing theories put forward by various other lawyers and Trump allies — including, he said, MyPillow chief executive Mike Lindell. “These are serious allegations, made by serious people,” he explained.

[Inside the ‘shadow reality world’ promoting the lie that the presidential election was stolen]

Referring to the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, Fielder argued that he and Walker “saw the potential for insurrection” before it took place and filed the lawsuit to offer people who believed they had been wronged in the election a place to have their complaints addressed.

“We’re peaceful people. We wanted to come to court and resolve it in a peaceful way,” he said. “What happened on January 6 was exactly what we predicted in the complaint.”

But the judge questioned whether, as officers of the court, the lawyers could file a lawsuit based on mere belief of problems. He noted the they had presented “not one iota” of evidence to support claims, for instance, that Dominion’s machines were hacked or that Facebook had manipulated the election via grants donated by Zuckerberg and routed to local officials through a nonprofit group.

Instead, he noted, they provided only sworn statements from people who believed the election was rigged — a belief fueled by Trump’s repeated false claims.

“Many people have been influenced by the outgoing officeholder saying the election was stolen. They sincerely believe everything that is stated by the outgoing officeholder,” Neureiter said. “Of course they’re going to think and feel and have genuine emotions about this. . . . How does that a federal lawsuit make, the fact that the people felt aggrieved somehow?”

Neureiter also questioned a website the lawyers set up to raise money to finance the suit, appearing to probe whether the lawsuit was filed to spur donations. The website is similar to fundraising efforts by other individuals and nonprofits that have said they are pursuing challenges to the election.

Fielder told the judge that 2,100 people had donated $95,000 in response to their requests for money and that all but $7,000 had been spent to prepare and file legal motions. “I haven’t tried to make money,” he said.

According to his biography, Neureiter, who was appointed a magistrate by other judges in 2018, previously served for a time on a committee that investigated alleged ethical violations by lawyers who practice in Colorado’s federal courts.

Lawyers for the various entities and individuals named in the suit urged Neureiter to impose penalties as a way of deterring other attorneys from continuing to press false claims about the election or using the courts in similar fashion in the future.

Joshua Matz, a lawyer representing the nonprofit Center for Tech and Civic Life, which made grants to local election offices attacked by Trump allies, said the Colorado lawyers had used the courts “as soap box to spread despicable and dangerous lies — lies that have imperiled election officials . . . That nearly destroyed the Capitol and that still undermine our democracy.”

“A law license does not confer unbounded prerogative to file objectively legally frivolous lawsuits, built on . . . a conspiracy theory derived largely from a pillow salesman, aimed at undermining a legitimate presidential election,” he argued during Friday’s hearing.

Neureiter said he would take the matter under advisement and issue a ruling soon.

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