By JAMES HILL, ABC News
(KENOSHA, Wis.) — John M. Pierce, a California lawyer who has employed war-like rhetoric in his advocacy and fundraising for Kyle Rittenhouse — the 17-year-old accused of killing two men and wounding another during a night of unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin — filed a motion to withdraw from Rittenhouse’s criminal case, just hours after prosecutors alleged in a court filing Thursday that Pierce’s reported financial problems raised ethical concerns and a potential conflict of interest.
“So that it does not take Kyle’s supporters by surprise, effective immediately I am taking over all civil matters for Kyle including his future defamation claims,” Pierce wrote on Twitter Thursday afternoon. “I will also be orchestrating all fundraising for defense costs. The terrific Mark Richards [a local criminal defense attorney] will proceed in Wisconsin.”
Kenosha County prosecutor Thomas Binger on Thursday morning took the highly unusual step of advocating against Pierce’s request for admission to the criminal case, a procedural measure required of out-of-state lawyers that would typically be granted without objection.
But Binger filled six and a half pages with unsparing criticism of Pierce, citing numerous public statements by Pierce that Binger claimed could “materially prejudic[e]” the case, along with reports of the collapse of Pierce’s law firm earlier this year “under a cloud of debt,” and several lawsuits alleging Pierce defaulted on hundreds of thousands of dollars in business and personal loans.
Pierce’s “personal financial difficulties raise significant ethical concerns,” Binger wrote in a court filing, contending Pierce could “personally benefit” from his close ties to the “#FightBack Foundation,” a Texas organization co-founded by Pierce and nationally known defamation lawyer Lin Wood. #FightBack had been raising money for Rittenhouse’s defense until last month, when Pierce posted $2 million raised by the foundation to bail the teenager out of jail.
Though Pierce stepped down from the foundation board in September, Binger noted in his court filing that Pierce continued to urge his 32,500 Twitter followers to send donations for Rittenhouse.
“This creates a potential conflict of interest for Attorney Pierce. Given his own substantial personal debts, his involvement with an unregulated and opaque ‘slush fund’ provides ample opportunity for self-dealing and fraud,” Binger alleged in the court filing. “Money that should be held in trust for the defendant may instead be used to repay Attorney Pierce’s numerous creditors.”
After Rittenhouse was released, Wood announced on Twitter that #FightBack would shift focus to what he described as “exposing fraud in the November 3 election” for the foreseeable future and directed Rittenhouse’s supporters to contact Pierce for any future donations. Wood is now involved in election-related litigation in multiple states. Wood told ABC News by email earlier this fall that all contributions to #FightBack designated for Rittenhouse would be used “exclusively for his criminal defense.” Anything left over, Wood said, would be “given to Kyle.”
With #FightBack apparently out of the fundraising picture, Pierce appeared Friday morning on the conservative news channel NewsMax TV in his new role as civil lawyer. Accompanied by his client’s mother, Wendy Rittenhouse, Pierce used the segment to announce a new fundraising site and vowed to pursue “a lot” of civil cases against media organizations and politicians he claims have defamed Rittenhouse. At the time the segment aired, the new fundraising site was still under construction. He tweeted Friday afternoon the site would be “live shortly.”
Pierce also continued his broadsides against the criminal case as a “political prosecution” and predicted that Rittenhouse would be acquitted. “This is probably the most important case, honestly, in the history of self-defense in the Anglo-American legal system,” Pierce told NewsMax, while making an overt appeal for contributions. “We’re going to need millions of dollars more to fund this legal defense.”
Pierce’s motion to withdraw as counsel in the criminal case makes no mention of the prosecutor’s blistering opposition to his participation in the case. Pierce’s filing simply states that “the legal team representing Kyle Rittenhouse in his various legal matters has been restructured” and that Pierce would be representing Rittenhouse “in the capacity of civil legal counsel only.”
In an email to ABC News, Pierce wrote it was “always the plan” for him to turn his attention “to the massive tasks of preparing Kyle’s defamation and other civil claims as well as orchestrating our new fundraising efforts to ensure we have the resources to get through trial.”
Over the past two years, at least nine lawsuits have been filed against Pierce’s law firm, Pierce Bainbridge Beck Price and Hecht, according to records from courts in Massachusetts, Texas, Arkansas, California and New York. The plaintiffs include a digital marketing company, legal support vendors, lenders and a former law partner.
In May, Pierce signed a “confession of judgment” in a New York court, acknowledging a debt of nearly $4 million to a merchant lender on a high-interest loan against his law firm’s assets and personally guaranteed by Pierce. While Pierce is still the 100% owner of that firm, he created in May a separate legal entity, Pierce Bainbridge, P.C., which Pierce has claimed to have “zero debt.”
The prosecutors handling the Rittenhouse case also called the court’s attention to an income and expense declaration Pierce submitted in family court late last year in connection with his divorce. In that November 2019 filing, Pierce declared no income and substantial personal debts, including federal and state tax tabs of $1.05 million, a $90,000 bank loan and a $27,000 debt owed to his former mother-in-law.
This is not the first time opposing counsel has taken the extraordinary step of arguing against Pierce’s admission to a case. In a New York court in June, attorneys for the defendants in a civil lawsuit contested Pierce’s request to join the plaintiffs’ legal team, citing many of the same financial issues raised by the Kenosha prosecutor and alleging “a practice and pattern of at best questionable and at worst unethical conduct,” according to court records. The plaintiffs withdrew Pierce’s application the next day without addressing the allegations about Pierce and attributed the move to a decision to hire a different law firm.
At a preliminary hearing in Rittenhouse’s criminal case conducted by video conference on Thursday, Rittenhouse sat silently in Richards’s law office as a judicial commissioner determined there was probable cause to proceed to trial. Pierce did not appear at the hearing and filed his motion to withdraw later that evening.
“Kyle is in terrific hands with our Wisconsin lawyers. We will all be working side by side to ensure Kyle is acquitted and all of his legal rights are vindicated,” Pierce wrote in an email to ABC News. He did not address the allegations raised by the prosecutors opposing his participation in the criminal case.
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