By Kelly Weill, The Daily Beast
When an attorney in a sprawling civil case dropped Richard Spencer as a client on Monday, the white nationalist became the eighth person to lose representation in the lawsuit, which takes aim at participants in the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.
The lawsuit Sines v. Kessler names as defendants many of the major far-right participants in the Unite the Right rally—as it was branded—which plaintiffs say left lasting physical and emotional scars on Charlottesville and its people. Since the lawsuit was filed in late 2017, defendants have struggled to find or retain legal representation. Some, like Spencer and the former leader of the fascist “Traditionalist Worker Party,” got dropped for unpaid legal fees. A lawyer representing the neo-Nazi “National Socialist Movement” has filed, unsuccessfully, to drop clients over a supposed conflict of interest. And multiple defendants have lost representation after their lawyers said they were impossible—in one case, “repugnant”—to work with.
Much of the American legal system has ground to a halt in recent months, with courtrooms closed over COVID-19, delaying civil and criminal cases alike. But the defendants in the Unite the Right case have a different problem: in a country with a long history of repugnant figures securing A-list legal representation, no one wants to hold them down.
Spencer’s lawyer, John DiNucci, filed to drop him as a client earlier this month, citing unpaid fees and his alleged lack of cooperation with the case. In a hearing this month, Spencer claimed his reputation prevented him from making enough money to pay his lawyer. (This month Spencer also faced, but avoided, jail time over unpaid fees related to his ongoing divorce in Montana.) Neither Spencer nor DiNucci returned The Daily Beast’s request for comment.
Sines v. Kessler is being backed by the civil liberties group Integrity First For America. Its executive director, Amy Spitalnick, said defendants’ lawyers were jumping ship for a variety of reasons.
“In some cases, these attorneys have moved to withdraw because they haven’t been paid or their clients haven’t been communicating with them,” Spitalnick told The Daily Beast. “In other cases, they’ve cited their clients’ ‘repugnant conduct.’ At the end of the day, the clients and their attorneys, to the extent they have them, are obligated to comply with the court orders and the defendants’ discovery obligations. That is what our plaintiffs are focused on right now.”
Although Sines v. Kessler is scheduled to go to trial in October, the discovery process is long underway. Plaintiffs are pushing defendants to turn over communications and evidence relating to the planning of the rally, where a neo-Nazi drove a car into a crowd of counter-demonstrators, killing one and wounding dozens more.
But some of the defendants’ own lawyers accuse their clients and former clients of impeding the discovery process. Attorneys Elmer Woodard and James Kolenich, who represent many defendants, abandoned the neo-Nazi group Vanguard America last June, claiming that the now-disbanded hate group had stopped communicating with them in the discovery process.
Dillon Hopper, the group’s one-time leader, told The Daily Beast he hadn’t turned in the necessary information.
“The reason I was dropped is due to my own failure to provide proper documentation in a timely manner, which caused the lawyer to become disgruntled and not want to represent me any further,” Hopper said in an email. In a filing last year, he also claimed that he was broke, and could not pay more urgent medical bills.
Though they still represent a host of far-right defendants, Woodard and Kolenich have apparently given up on three others. In January 2019, the pair successfully withdrew from representing former Traditionalist Worker Party leader Matthew Heimbach. (It was their second attempt, after their first motion to withdraw was denied.) The lawyers said Heimbach hadn’t paid them, and that he’d cut off communication with them.
In a message to The Daily Beast, Heimbach said the lawsuit was too expensive, and accused Woodard and Kolenich of jacking up their rates because “most attorneys don’t want to be labeled a ‘Klan lawyer.’” (Neither Woodard nor Kolenich returned requests for comment.) He also cited campaigns by anti-fascists to boot white supremacists off online fundraising platforms like GoFundMe.
Woodard and Kolenich (the latter of whom previously gave an interview parroting an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory and claiming that “white people are the chosen people in the New Testament”) have also dropped a pair of far-right internet-personalities in the case. In July, they withdrew representation from Christopher Cantwell and Robert “Azzmador” Ray.
Ray has been difficult to work with, the lawyers argued, because he’s been on the run since at least June 2018, avoiding charges for allegedly using tear gas at Unite the Right. (His defense in that case is shaky, because he boasted on video that “I personally, literally, gassed half a dozen k*kes.”)
The lawyers’ only means of contacting Ray was via the comments section on a white supremacist site. “Counsel had to request contact through an alternative means (an online Alt-Right comment area) and Mr. Ray would then call,” they wrote in a filing, adding that he had not paid his bills. (Ray could not be reached for comment.)
Woodard and Kolenich also dropped Cantwell, after he made violent comments about the plaintiffs’ lead attorney on the messaging app Telegram. “Mr. Cantwell has rendered Attorney’s continued representation of him unreasonably difficult, has created a conflict of interest between himself and Attorney’s other clients, and has engaged in conduct Attorney’s consider ‘repugnant or imprudent,’” the lawyers wrote in a withdrawal motion, also citing his unpaid legal fees. (Cantwell could not be immediately reached, as he is in jail awaiting trial for incitement after he allegedly threatened to rape a woman in front of her children.)
Meanwhile, an attorney representing the group National Socialist Movement and its former leader has filed to withdraw, so far unsuccessfully. Attorney William ReBrook, who did not return a request for comment, claimed that representing both the group and its former leader constituted a conflict of interest. That former leader, Jeff Schoep, claims to have abandoned decades of neo-Nazism just in time for the lawsuit, a claim that some observers of the far right have met with raised eyebrows. (Schoep did not return a request for comment.)
In a filing opposing ReBrook’s withdrawal, plaintiffs’ lawyers argued that ReBrook knew Schoep had already stepped down by the time he took the case. The plaintiffs accused ReBrook of being a “willing participant” in an increasingly complex bid not to turn over discovery evidence.
Spitalnick said the defendants had spent years trying to avoid handing over records that might indicate their complicity in the violent rally. It was hard not to see the fiasco that is their quest for legal representation as an extension of that.
“It’s been over two and a half years since this case was filed,” she said, “and the defendants have tried every trick in the book to avoid accountability.”