The Gateway Pundit says he’s the one being defamed

The Gateway Pundit, the far-right conspiracy theorist who is the target of a high-profile defamation case in the St. Louis Circuit Court, is attempting to turn the tables on his accusers.    

On Jan. 16, lawyers for The Gateway Pundit filed a counterclaim against two Georgia poll workers, Ruby Freeman and daughter Wandrea “Shaye” Moss, who sued him for libel in December 2021 for accusing them of voter fraud in the counting of ballots in the 2020 presidential election. The counterclaim also names as defendants two of the nonprofit legal groups that are part of the women’s legal team and three individuals serving as lawyers for those nonprofits.

The counterclaim is “right out of the Donald Trump-warrior playbook,” said Michael A. Kahn, a prominent St. Louis attorney with expertise in First Amendment issues, who is not involved in the case. “It’s an unusual and unusually aggressive move. Essentially the defendants claim they themselves have been libeled by a lawsuit that accuses them of libeling the plaintiffs.” 

But asserting libel against himself is not without precedent for The Gateway Pundit. In December 2020, the publication, its owner, James “Jim” Hoft of St. Louis and his identical twin brother Joe Hoft, alleged libel against Dean S. Miller, a prize-winning journalist who had written an online story debunking a piece that had appeared in The Gateway Pundit the previous October. The Gateway Pundit story, which carried Joe Hoft’s byline, had made allegations concerning Hunter Biden’s laptop. 

St. Louis County Circuit Court Judge Kristine Kerr dismissed the suit against Miller in late 2021. She noted, among other things, that Miller’s story did not actually contain “the exact words that are alleged to be defamatory.”      

Even if the counterclaim is eventually dismissed by the judge, Kahn said, it may serve to “muddy the waters” and to delay the trial in the case of the two poll workers, now scheduled for February of 2024.  It also may create a financial concern for the lawyers representing the two women, because it seeks damages against them. 

The suit now in St. Louis Circuit Court is one of a handful across the country that is testing how far news organizations like Fox News and One America News Network as well as website publishers can go in purveying misinformation without being found guilty of violating the nation’s high standards for proving libel. Those standards, in connection with public figures   require proof of “actual malice,” a legal term meaning that the false statement was published with reckless disregard for the truth.   

Jesse Herring, 23, sells leftover Trump 2020 flags in Upland, Southern California, 23 days before the president leaves office after losing the 2020 election. (Photo by Russ Allison Loar via Flickr)

Editor’s Note: This story is part of GRJ’s exclusive coverage of The Gateway Pundit’s legal disputes involving coverage of the 2020 presidential election.

Beginning in November of 2020, The Gateway Pundit published dozens of articles accusing the two Georgia women of voter fraud by processing the same votes for Joe Biden multiple times while election observers weren’t looking. The articles at various times accused one or both women of having been “crooked,” of having committed “fraud” and of having “flip(ped) Georgia for Beijing Biden by their actions.” It asked why they weren’t being prosecuted for “these crimes.” 

The articles continued for months despite the fact that Georgia election officials immediately investigated and publicly announced there was no basis to the allegations. The women nevertheless received death threats and other harassment.  Their public testimony to the Special Committee Investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol provided an emotional highlight to one of the committee’s hearings last summer.

In the counterclaim, The Gateway Pundit’s lawyers contend that the suit by the two poll workers “is not an ordinary defamation case,” because it is intended “to drive … (The Gateway Pundit) out of business. It is a form of political lawfare and lacks legal merit.” 

The Gateway Pundit is represented by St. Louis lawyer John C. Burns, who uses a post office box as an address, and by the Randazza Legal Group, of Las Vegas, including its namesake attorney Marc J. Randazza, who has represented several far-right figures. 

The legal team representing the two poll workers is made up of three private firms and two nonprofits.  The private firms include the powerful St. Louis-based firm of Dowd Bennett. The nonprofits are United to Protect Democracy, based in Washington, D.C., and the Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic MFIA at Yale Law School in New Haven, Connecticut. 

United to Protect Democracy calls itself a non-partisan group “dedicated to defeating the authoritarian threat, building more resilient democratic institutions, and protecting our freedom and liberal democracy.” The MFIA Clinic defines its mission as “to support robust investigative journalism in the digital age and to advance the public’s right of access to information needed for democracy to function.” 

The counterclaim does not name the for-profit law firms as defendants. In naming United to Protect Democracy, Yale University (through the MFIA Clinic) and the lawyers, the counterclaim cites statements made outside the courtroom, either in press releases or formal statements on the nonprofits’ websites or Twitter accounts, or in one radio interview. 

For example, the United to Protect Democracy press release that announced the filing of the suit in 2021 included a quote from staff counsel Brittany Williams:  “Lies like those that The Gateway Pundit knowingly told about Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss cannot be divorced from the devastation they leave behind—both for the targeted individuals and for our democracy itself.” 

The counterclaim, which names Williams as a defendant, asserts, “At no time did Counterclaim Plaintiffs knowingly tell lies about Ms. Freeman or Ms. Moss.”   

Likewise, the MFIA Clinic also published a press release announcing the suit on its website and Twitter account. The release quoted its director, David Schulz, as saying, “the type of disinformation campaign waged by The Gateway Pundit is undermining the very ability of our democracy to function.” 

But “at no time did Counterclaim plaintiffs engage in a disinformation campaign,” the counterclaim contends. It names Schulz as a defendant along with the MFIA Clinic.     

Statements like those made by Williams, Schulz and a third defendant, John Langford, of United to Protect Democracy, “impute a lack of integrity and misconduct in the field of journalism, [The Gateway Pundit’s] line of calling,” the counterclaim alleges. As a result, the Hoft brothers and The Gateway Pundit “suffered … impairment of reputation and standing.” The counterclaim asks for compensatory and punitive damages against all the defendants and for payment of attorneys’ fees.

Among the arguments The Gateway Pundit’s lawyers make in defending the Hofts’ coverage is one that separates fact from opinion. “The statements at issue,” they say, “… are either statements of opinion based on disclosed facts or statements of rhetorical hyperbole that no reasonable reader is likely to interpret as a literal statement of fact.” Such statements, their counterclaim says, “cannot form the basis of defamation and related tort claims…”   

Kahn, the St. Louis First Amendment expert not involved in the case, said the Hofts have “sued the plaintiffs and their lawyers over descriptions of the lawsuit that were made by the lawyers in interviews and on websites.” Because the actual allegations made in legal filings, like almost all statements made in judicial proceedings, are “absolutely privileged,” Kahn explained, those statements cannot be grounds for a defamation suit.

Thus, the Hofts’ attorneys have focused on the statements made outside the courtroom, Kahn said. To those statements, the law applies its “fair reportage” privilege, he explained. Accurate descriptions — often, by the media — of allegedly defamatory statements made in a judicial proceeding fall within this privilege, he said. Thus the scope of that privilege in this situation will hinge on whether the judge finds that the counterclaim defendants did or did not go beyond merely accurately summarizing the content of their suit. 

“But leaving aside whether that privilege applies here,” Kahn commented, “the key element of any libel claim hinges on whether the allegedly libelous statement is true or false. Truth, after all, is a complete defense to a libel claim.” 

The counterclaim defendants have 30 days (to Feb. 16) to respond to the counterclaim. In their response, Kahn said, the poll workers’ lawyers could file an answer denying the claim or a motion asking the judge to dismiss the counterclaim for failure to state a viable claim.     

The counterclaim defendants Williams and Schulz, of United to Protect Democracy and Yale, respectively, declined comment, as did Matt Ampleman, of Dowd Bennett. The case is being conducted in the courtroom of St. Louis Circuit Judge Jason Sengheiser.

Paul Wagman is a former Post-Dispatch reporter and FleishmanHillard executive who is now an independent reporter, editor and communications consultant. He wrote an investigative report earlier this year for GJR on the involvement of St. Louis Republican officials in the election denial myth. 

St. Louis judge largely favors Georgia poll workers in court wrangling with The Gateway Pundit

A St. Louis Circuit judge has ruled that The Gateway Pundit, the far-right conspiracy website owned by James Hoft, must provide much of the information his accusers have been seeking for six months in their defamation suit against him.

Judge Jason M. Sengheiser sided largely with attorneys for the two Georgia poll workers, Ruby Freeman and Wandrea Moss, who sued The Gateway Pundit for repeatedly falsely accusing them of having cheated against President Donald J. Trump in their vote counting.  The Gateway Pundit’s accusations continued long after they were refuted by Georgia voting authorities and led to death threats and other harassment against the two women, who are mother and daughter. 

Judge Sengheiser set Feb. 19, 2024–more than a year from now–as the date for the beginning of a five-day jury trial in the case.    

The suit has drawn national attention as one of a handful across the country in which far right websites and news organizations including Fox News, One America News Network and others have been accused – in their reporting on alleged fraud in the 2020 election – of topping the very high bar that protects media organizations from libel judgments involving public officials. That bar is proof of “actual malice” or reckless disregard for the truth.  

Advocates for these plaintiffs see an opportunity to punish some of the most egregious purveyors of misinformation.  They notched their first big victory recently by obtaining nearly $1.5 billion in judgments against Alex Jones, the host of the InfoWars podcast and website, in connection with his coverage of the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

Some observers, however, fear that more such judgments in defamation cases could lead to a weakening of the protections offered even to traditional media by the First Amendment.  And conversely, if the defendants largely escape unharmed, purveyors of misinformation could be emboldened even further.

The Gateway Pundit and its owner, Jim Hoft, are based in St. Louis.

As the GJR reported, Sengheiser conducted a hearing Dec. 15 where he heard arguments in the wrangling over pre-trial discovery in the case against The Gateway Pundit. The lawyers for Freeman and Moss said the defendants – who also include Jim Hoft’s identical twin brother, Joe, a contributor to The Gateway Pundit – had not produced a single shred of the non-public information they had sought since they had begun asking six months earlier.  They essentially accused the defendants of having been deliberately uncooperative and asked for the judge to order them to pay for their fees in seeking their cooperation.

The defendants responded that many of the requests were “unduly burdensome and wildly inappropriate.” They asked the Judge to have the plaintiffs pay for their legal fees.

Sengheiser didn’t pick a winner in the dispute over the legal fees, allowing each side to pay for its own. And he sided with the defendants in a few respects.  

For example, he said the lawyers for the two women had indeed been “unduly burdensome” with their initial sweeping request for Google Analytics information that would shed light on the popularity and profitability of The Gateway Pundit’s stories accusing the two women.  But he noted that the plaintiffs’ lawyers had also made a more limited request for Google Analytics information, and he ordered the defense to comply with that.

Moreover, Judge Sengheiser ruled that most of the plaintiffs’ discovery requests had not been “unduly burdensome,” or vague, overbroad, … or irrelevant,” as The Gateway Pundit’s lawyers had asserted.  He ordered the defendants to answer them.

In addition, the lawyers for The Gateway Pundit had claimed they shouldn’t have to answer many of the requests because the Hoft brothers, they said, are reporters and have the right to protect their sources.  The judge, citing legal precedent, said the defendants didn’t have the right to such blanket protection without providing information that, “without revealing information itself privileged or protected, will enable other parties to assess the applicability of the privilege or protection.” He ordered The Gateway Pundit to prepare “a privilege log” listing the materials they claim are privileged to enable Plaintiffs to assess the applicability of the claimed privilege.

“The Court notes that the reporter’s shield privilege is not an absolute privilege in Missouri and that Defendants may be ordered to produce documents withheld under this privilege, potentially following an evidentiary hearing,” Sengheiser ruled.

The judge ordered the defendants to comply with his order within 20 days.

Matt Ampleman, an attorney with Dowd Bennett, the St. Louis law firm that is part of the legal team for the two women, had no comment. John C. Burns, the St. Louis attorney representing The Gateway Pundit, couldn’t be reached immediately. 

Paul Wagman is a former Post-Dispatch reporter and FleishmanHillard executive who is now an independent reporter, editor and communications consultant. He wrote an investigative report earlier this year for GJR on the involvement of St. Louis Republican officials in the election denial myth. 

Hearing gets underway in Gateway Pundit defamation suit

A high-stakes defamation suit against The Gateway Pundit, a far right, St. Louis-based website, is off to a slow and contentious start in St. Louis Circuit Court.  But a hearing today could begin to untie some of the knots.   

The hearing is scheduled for this afternoon in the court of Judge Jason Sengheiser.  The agenda includes a motion to compel The Gateway Pundit and its owner, St. Louisan James (“Jim”) Hoft, to provide discovery – i.e., information — that the plaintiffs have been seeking for six months in connection with a suit they filed a year ago. Hoft’s identical twin brother, Joe Hoft, who appears to be a resident of both St. Louis and Florida and contributes articles to the website, is also a defendant.  

(Photo by University of Chicago Institute of Politics via Flickr)

The plaintiffs in the suit are two Georgia poll workers, Ruby Freeman and her daughter Wandrea  (“Shaye”) Moss.  Beginning in November of 2020, The Gateway Pundit has published dozens of articles – 58, according to the plaintiffs — accusing them of having processed the same votes for Joe Biden multiple times while election observers weren’t looking.  (See, for example, “NEW VIDEO shows anti-Trump Georgia Ballot Counter Ruby Freeman with Piles of Ballots, … Working Alone in Cubes WITH NO GOP OBSERVERS IN SIGHT!”

Georgia election officials immediately and publicly refuted the accusation – the two women had done nothing wrong — but the allegations, which were echoed by Rudolph Giuliani and President Trump himself, continued. Death threats and other harassment ensued.  The two women’s public testimony to the Special Committee Investigating the Jan. 6 Attack on the Capitol provided an emotional highlight to one of the committee’s hearings last summer. 

When Judge Sengheiser will rule on the specific matter to be brought before him today is unknown but given the accumulated volume of arguments and the time of year it may not be soon.  Regardless, it’s expected that if the case does come to trial – perhaps in about a year — it will have national repercussions. 

That’s because the case is one of a handful across the country in which plaintiffs are accusing various parties of having topped the very high bar – proof of “actual malice” or reckless disregard for the truth – that protects media organizations from libel judgments involving public officials. Advocates for these plaintiffs see an opportunity to punish some of the most egregious purveyors of misinformation.  

Yet some observers fear that this same outcome could produce a weakening of the protections offered even to traditional media by the First Amendment. And conversely, if the defendants largely escape unharmed,  purveyors of misinformation could be emboldened even further.  

In one defamation case that has already made headlines, Alex Jones, the host of the InfoWars podcast, was recently fined more than $1.4 billion for his allegations that the Sandy Hook massacre never took place. In another, Fox News is being sued by Dominion Voting Systems for repeated claims by Fox’s hosts, including Sean Hannity, that the company’s voting machines were rigged for Joe Biden. That case may go to trial next year. And in a third case, in the Colorado District Court in Denver, the former chief of security for Dominion has sued Rudolph Giuliani, Sidney Powell, the Trump campaign, Newsmax, and again, The Gateway Pundit, for their assertions that he participated in the alleged rigging. 

One First Amendment champion who is full-speed ahead on the case against the Hofts in St. Louis is Floyd Abrams, who represented The New York Times in the Pentagon Papers case in 1972.  In fact, two lawyers with his Floyd Abrams Institute for Freedom of Expression at the Yale Law School are among the attorneys for Freeman and Moss.  And Abrams is quoted on the website of United to Protect Democracy, another non-profit helping with the women’s suit, as  as follows: 

“This is the sort of lawsuit libel law was created to permit. The complaint depicts terribly wronged plaintiffs suing to restore their grievously harmed reputations from statements made with knowledge of their falsity. Not only does the First Amendment provide no protection for such statements, but this is precisely the situation in which libel litigation is most needed.”

The stakes in the case go beyond the pain endured by the two women.  The written complaint that launched the case a year ago noted, “The intentional dissemination of known falsehoods aimed at sowing doubt about the integrity of our elections threatens our very ability to function as a democracy.”   

The specific focus of the hearing scheduled for today is a motion submitted Dec. 2 on behalf of the plaintiffs’ legal team by Matt D. Ampleman of the powerful Dowd Bennett firm in St. Louis. Dowd Bennett is part of a legal team that besides lawyers from the Abrams Institute and the Washington, D.C.-based United to Protect Democracy includes two private firms in Atlanta. 

The Dec. 2 motion asserts that since the case was filed in December of 2021, “Defendants’ pattern of delay and obstruction has left Plaintiffs, to date, without a single non-public document responsive to discovery requests.” The defendants’ tactics have included objecting to the “definitions for the terms ‘Defendants,’ ‘You,’ and ‘Your,’” the motion says.  

Several of the requests that have gone unmet, the filing says, relate to The Gateway Pundit’s finances.  For example, the motion requests information from Google Analytics that would provide insight into how many readers The Gateway Pundit’s articles about Freeman and Moss attracted.  With that data, it would be possible   to make inferences about “how much Defendants have monetized their defamatory content about the Plaintiffs,” and therefore how strong their motive might have been to have “continued to publish defamatory statements after being put on notice of falsity.”

Likewise, the motion seeks information about The Gateway Pundit’s former relationship with Google AdSense, the company’s powerful advertising unit, and about The Gateway Pundit’s subscription base. Information about both would shed light on The Gateway Pundit’s financial motive to keep publishing “known falsehoods” about the two women and about its “journalistic practices and ethical standards, which also bears on the actual malice question.” 

As a company owned 100 percent by Jim Hoft, The Gateway Pundit does not make its finances publicly known.  A website monitoring firm called SimilarWeb, however, estimates the company’s annual revenues at $10-15 million a year.  The Plaintiffs have not yet offered any indication as to what they may be contemplating for damages. 

Also of interest in the plaintiffs’ filing is an exhibit asking for communications between Joe Hoft and two people, Christina Bobb and Owen Shroyer. Bobb is a lawyer for Trump who has been quoted in stories by both Joe and Jim Hoft several times. She gained notoriety this past June when it was revealed that she had signed a sworn statement that all classified material had been returned from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home to the Federal Government and that a “diligent search” had been conducted. It turned out documents marked classified remained at Mar-a-Lago.

Shroyer is a host on InfoWars and also a frequent guest on InfoWar’s “The Alex Jones Show” who testified in a Jones defamation case last summer in Austin, Tex.  He is a native St. Louisan and a former host on St. Louis radio stations KXFN ad KFNS.  He also has been quoted or cited in many stories on The Gateway Pundit. 

Representing the Hoft brothers and their website in the case is St. Louis attorney John C. Burns, who in court filings has provided only a post office box as an address. Joining him are two lawyers from a Las Vegas-based firm whose namesake partner, Marc Randazza, has often defended far-right figures. They include, according to this Wikipedia profile, Jones, the neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin, and a participant in the planning of the violent Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. who used the pseudonym “Kristall.night,” an apparent reference to Kristallnach, a pogrom the Nazis conducted against Jews in 1938,  

In a filing objecting to Plaintiffs’ requests for discovery, the defendants’ attorneys wrote that many of the requests are “unduly burdensome and wildly inappropriate.”  “If there is any gamesmanship, it is Plaintiffs’ attempt to manufacture a failure to produce discovery where the discovery doesn’t belong to Defendants.”

Trying to get details on the financial performance of specific Gateway Pundit articles is “an affront to the Constitution,” the filing continued, quoting a 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling: “If a newspaper’s profit motive were determinative, all aspects of its operations – from the selection of news stories to the choice of editorial position – would be subject to regulation … (that) would be incompatible with the First Amendment.” 

The objection also described the entire case as misconceived.  “This is a lawsuit not to compensate the plaintiffs, but rather to shut down the Gateway Pundit. … The sole purpose of this suit is to impose costs on Defendants, with Plaintiffs’ counsel at the ill-named ‘United to Protect Democracy’ engaging in fundraising off this suit and maintaining it through a form of political champerty.” 

Moreover, Freeman and Moss have no cause to pursue The Gateway Pundit because they have already reached a settlement in a similar but separate suit they filed against One America News Network, Burns and his fellow attorneys wrote.  “There is no reason to suggest that they were not made whole for the very same injuries they claim here were caused by Mssrs. Hoft and TGP Communications,” the attorneys argue.

Paul Wagman is a former Post-Dispatch reporter and FleishmanHillard executive who is now an independent reporter, editor and communications consultant. He wrote an investigative report earlier this year for GJR on the involvement of St. Louis Republican officials in the election denial myth. 

Effort to discipline Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley ends in failure; critic says ethics process is ‘opaque, arbitrary’

An effort to discipline Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., for his statements about the 2020 presidential election has received a final rejection from state legal authorities, leaving the man who led the effort feeling “ripped off.” 

In two recent letters to Alan B. Hoffman, the retired St. Louis lawyer who led the group seeking punishment, the Advisory Committee of the Supreme Court of Missouri reported it had decided not to pursue the matter and was closing the file.  The rejection has not been previously reported.

The group led by Hoffman is an ad hoc collection of 16 individuals, most of them lawyers and St. Louisans, and also including a few prominent Democrats, such as former St. Louis Mayor Vincent Schoemehl Jr. and attorney Jane Dueker. Attorney Mark Pedroli, a St. Louis lawyer with a specialty in government-transparency issues, is also a member.  

(Photo by Dominique A. Pineiro via Flickr)

In February, 2021, the group filed a complaint against Hawley with Alan Pratzel, the chief disciplinary counsel of the Missouri Supreme Court, who by the Court’s rules is in charge of investigating alleged violations of legal misconduct in Missouri. 

 The group cited Hawley’s Dec. 30, 2020 claim on Twitter that “some states, particularly Pennsylvania, failed to follow their own state election laws” and there had been an “unprecedented effort of mega corporations, including Facebook and Twitter, to interfere in the election.” The group also took note of Hawley’s fist-pump to the crowd outside the Capitol on Jan. 6, which it said had encouraged the violence that followed.  

Hawley’s statements, the complaint said, “were false and known by Senator Hawley to be false at the time made or were made with reckless disregard for truth or falsity.”  And as a result, the group said, they violated the oaths Hawley took as a Senator to uphold the U.S. and Missouri Constitutions and to practice law in Missouri. 

But after nearly 18 months, Pratzel informed the group this past August that he had found “insufficient probable cause to believe that Senator Hawley was guilty of professional misconduct that would justify discipline ….” Hawley’s public statements, he added, “were constitutionally protected.”

The group promptly took the only recourse it could under the state’s disciplinary system, appealing to the Advisory Committee, which is made up of 12 volunteer members, most of them lawyers, appointed by the Supreme Court. A St. Louis lawyer, Dorothy White-Coleman, serves as chair.   

In its appeal, the Hoffman group asserted that Pratzel had not offered reasons for his decision – no “analysis of the facts or applicable law … to support these conclusions.” It also argued that if Pratzel were basing his Constitutional protection argument on the so-called “Speech and Debate Clause” in the U.S. Constitution, he was mistaken. That clause protects members of Congress from being sued for their speech in connection with their legislative activities, not for speech that is “political in nature rather than legislative,” the group argued.

But on Nov. 3, the Advisory Committee wrote Hoffman that after having “carefully considered your complaint,” it had “concluded that it agrees with the decision to close the file…. It does not appear that further investigation will result in a different conclusion.” The six-sentence letter provided no additional specifics. It was signed by Melinda J. Bentley, who for the last decade has served as the Committee’s Legal Ethics Counsel.

The next day, Hoffman sent the Committee a new letter noting that Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina had attempted to use the “Speech and Debate Clause” to protect him from a subpoena to testify to a Fulton County grand jury investigating efforts to disrupt the administration of the 2020 elections in Georgia.  The Graham case, Hoffman’s letter said, was a perfect parallel to Pratzel’s apparent “conclusion that Senator Hawley’s actions complained of herein are constitutionally insulated from ethical scrutiny.”  But the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia had denied Graham’s request and then the U.S. Court of Appeals had rejected his appeal, Hoffman’s letter noted. In addition, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to block Graham’s testimony.

On Nov. 7, Hoffman sent a second follow-up letter, this one asking the Advisory Committee to provide specifics about its reasoning.  “Complainants … request the Advisory Committee to set forth its analysis of the facts and law leading to its determination that Senator Hawley’s actions … were constitutionally protected and its November 3 denial of the Complaint herein on that ground.” 

On Nov. 10 Bentley responded with a new letter reiterating that it had decided against opening a disciplinary investigation and was closing the case. The letter, four sentences long, made no mention of the Speech and Debate Clause issue and again offered no specifics concerning reasoning. It said the information Hoffman had requested Nov. 7 was “confidential, per Rule 5.31.” That rule says that “all proceedings and the records of all proceedings” in the Supreme Court’s investigations of ethical conduct shall be confidential unless otherwise provided.  

Hoffman said he found it “frustrating and discouraging” that his nearly 22-month encounter with the state’s professional discipline process had ended in “such an unsatisfactory and dismissive fashion.  I feel ripped off,” he said.

“It would be different,” he continued, “if the Chief Disciplinary Counsel and the Advisory Committee of the Supreme Court of Missouri had provided a reasoned decision or decisions based on the facts (which were not in dispute) and the law.”  

But the Advisory Committee, he continued, didn’t even explain whether it was closing the case because it agreed with Pratzel that Hawley’s acts were “constitutionally protected” or for some other reason. He is left still wondering, he said, what the true reason was. 

“The system for enforcing the ethical rules governing Missouri lawyers appears to be opaque, arbitrary, and lacking in meaningful oversight and accountability,” Hoffman said.  “That’s a disservice to the citizens of this State. It would seem that reform is needed.”

Bentley did not respond to voice mail messages left on her office phone Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning.  

Hawley defended his 2020 election challenges in a January, 2021 oped in which he said he objected to Pennsylvania’s results because it allowed universal mail-in voting during the coronavirus pandemic, which he said violated the state’s constitution. Last summer the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that the absentee voting law was in line with the state constitution.

Meanwhile, a generally similar ethics complaint growing out of the 2020 election is proceeding on a parallel path against now Sen.-Elect Eric Schmitt.  That case was filed in September with the Office of Disciplinary Counsel by The 65 Project, a nonprofit group seeking to “protect democracy from abuse of the legal system by holding accountable lawyers who engage in fraudulent and malicious attempts to subvert American democracy.” Michael Teter, managing director, told the GJR his group has not yet received a response.

Paul Wagman is a former Post-Dispatch reporter and FleishmanHillard executive who is now an independent reporter, editor and communications consultant. He wrote an investigative report earlier this year for GJR on the involvement of St. Louis Republican officials in the election denial myth. 

Missouri attorney general aligns with St. Louis far-right disinformation site ahead of election

After Attorney General  Eric Schmitt won the Republican primary August 2 for the open U.S. Senate seat in Missouri, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch expressed the hope that he would pivot to the center for the general election. 

But Schmitt continued his embrace of “toxic radicalism,” as the Post  has commented.  And an indication that that might be the case – an indication that no one in St. Louis noticed at the time — came on the very day Schmitt won the primary.

On August 2, Jim Hoft, a St. Louisan otherwise known as the Gateway Pundit, was added as another plaintiff in a suit the Missouri Attorney General had filed months earlier, along with four other new individual plaintiffs. The joint pleading came in the form of an amended version of a complaint Schmitt had originally filed in May with just one other plaintiff, Attorney General Jeffrey Landry of Louisiana, in the U. S. District Court of the Western District of Louisiana.

(Illustration by Steve Edwards)

 In both its original and amended versions, the suit alleged that President Biden, Dr. Anthony Fauci, and other prominent members of the executive branch had sought to suppress free speech by pressuring social media companies like Facebook and Twitter to restrict or censor what users could say  .  The argument that Big Government and Big Tech are allied in such an effort is a widespread contention on the political right.  The suit specifically focused on free expression about the issues of Covid, election integrity, and Hunter Biden’s laptop.

“I will not stand idly by,” Schmitt announced in a press release the day the suit was initially filed, “while the Biden Administration attempts to trample on the First Amendment rights of Missourians and Americans.” He deplored what he called the Biden Administration’s “Orwellian campaign against ‘misinformation.’”

Critics immediately ridiculed the initial filing as little more than a disguised press release – another example of Republican Attorneys General tossing red meat to their bases. Liz Dye, a writer for the legal publication “Above the Law,” noted that Trump had filed his own censorship case against Twitter, but that another federal judge, James Donato in the Northern District of California, had dismissed it, in part on the ground that government officials had a right to express their opinions. 

“It takes a lot to file something dumber than Trump’s tech lawsuits,” Dye commented. “But by God these AGs have left no corner of 4chan unscoured in their effort to do it.”

But the suit may fare better than many liberals would like, in part because the venue was clearly carefully targeted. U.S. District Judge Terry A. Doughty is an appointee of President Trump who has already overturned the Biden Administration on mandatory Covid vaccines for federal healthcare workers and restrictions on drilling for oil and gas on federal lands. In July, he ruled against the Biden Administration and for the plaintiffs in ordering commencement of the discovery process.  

Regardless, rhetorical haymakers like the kind thrown by Dye are nothing new for Schmitt, whose critics have long lambasted his legal attacks against school districts over mask-wearing to thwart Covid, against China in connection with Covid, and more — all, of course, with no evident impact on the man who seems destined to be Missouri’s next U.S. Senator. 

So it’s not the suit, per se, or the criticism , that makes this particular case stand out.  It is, rather, the entry of the individuals into the case – and in particular, Hoft — that makes it noteworthy

Adding any individuals to a suit brought by the state is unusual, said James Layton, who served as Missouri’s Solicitor General for about 20 years under Attorneys General Jay Nixon and Chris Koster, both Democrats. Layton noted that the docket in the case says that it was the current Missouri Solicitor General, D. John Sauer, who added Hoft and the other four Individuals to it. Layton is now with the Clayton law firm of Tueth Keeney.

“I just think it’s unusual for an Attorney General to affirmatively have private parties (enter a case),” he said.  “And the only time I can recall that ever having happened with any public entity, frankly, is where there’s a question of standing and they need the private party in order to ensure that the case can go forward.  And I’ve seen that most commonly in Hancock cases.” 

“Hancock cases” are ones referring to challenges to tax increases under Missouri’s Hancock Amendment, which limits tax increases.

Agreeing to add individual plaintiffs also strikes the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri (ACLU) as contrary to Schmitt’s and Sauer’s posture in a recent case, a spokesman said. The situation is not entirely analogous, but in September, 2021 the ACLU represented some students with disabilities who asked to intervene against the state in a case in which the Attorney General was seeking to stop a school district from requiring universal masking. Sauer argued against the intervention, saying, “… the party that’s already in the case, doesn’t have to raise every single argument that you want to raise on behalf of the representative as long as they’re very vigorously defending the ultimate position and relief that you would like to see.”

Schmitt’s spokesman declined to comment for this story, so it’s impossible to know, but it may be that he and Landry believed they did need to add the individuals to gain standing, said one local attorney who asked not to be identified. Both attorneys generals asserted in their original filing that they have grounds to file, in part because they have “a quasi-sovereign interest in protecting the free speech rights of the vast majority of their citizens” and because they rely on a free flow of information on social media to make good decisions. But they may nonetheless have felt vulnerable on this point, the lawyer said.  So adding Hoft enabled Schmitt to claim he was protecting the rights of a Missourian, while adding Hines did the same for Landry.  

But what’s especially noteworthy, of course, is who Hoft is.   

The website he founded and publishes, The Gateway Pundit, is among the most notorious purveyors of disinformation in the country.  As this GJR profile from 2021 reported, he has been a champion of right-wing  conspiracy theories for nearly 20 years, and, like some others in the field, appears to have made a very good living out of it. 

For the state’s top law enforcement officer to partner with him, therefore, doesn’t sit well with some legal experts.

“By adding Hoft to the case and giving him the state’s imprimatur, Schmitt has essentially normalized him,” commented Michael Wolff, a former chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court and Dean Emeritus of the Saint Louis University Law School. 

“Eric Schmitt has chosen to partner with a man who has made a career out of purveying lies and misinformation,” said Alan Hoffman, a retired Husch Blackwell attorney who leads a group that has filed an ethics challenge against Sen. Josh Hawley for his statements concerning the integrity of the 2020 election.  “That is beyond inappropriate and enormously distressing.” 

Hoft did not respond to a request for comment.

A 2017 study out of Harvard University reported: “Gateway Pundit is in a class of its own, known for publishing falsehoods and spreading hoaxes.” In 2021, The German Marshall Fund of the United States, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, D.C., singled him out as a responsible for a disproportionate share of the chatter about the election from “False Content Producers” in the fourth quarter of 2020.  He has been contradicted by one fact-checking organization after another.

And more recently, he has been sued for defamation. 

One case is in the state District Court in Denver, where Hoft, along with Rudolf Giuliani, Sidney Powell, the Trump campaign, Newsmax and others have been sued by Eric Coomer, the former security chief for Dominion Voting Systems. Hoft wrote that Coomer had personally guaranteed Antifa members that Dominion election machines had been rigged to elect Biden. He called Coomer “an unhinged sociopath,” a “lunatic,” “mentally ill” and “an unhinged Trump hater and Antifa supporter.” Coomer received death threats and was forced to go into hiding.

Hoft and the other defendants responded with motions to have the charges dismissed, but in a development that seems to have escaped notice outside Colorado, Judge Marie Avery Moses ruled against them all.  She made her ruling last May 13 – about three months before Hoft was added to Schmitt and Landry’s case.  

Here is what Judge Moses, a recent appointee of Colorado’s Democratic governor, said about Hoft in turning down his request for dismissal. (She referred to him in the plural as “Hoft-TGP” (The Gateway Pundit): 

“To date, Hoft-TGP have not put forward any evidence in support of their statements about Coomer. Hoft-TGP never attempted to contact Coomer, asked to see the notes Oltmann [Hoft’s source for his report] claims he took during the call, or asked about the identities of the other alleged participants. … Hoft-TGP financially benefitted from this conduct as their post-election coverage resulted in increased subscriptions, increased advertising revenue, and notoriety as a pro-Trump grassroots leader. Hoft-TGP have not retracted any of their publications about Coomer, and they remain publicly available to this day.”

Hoft, she continued, “did not consult with experts on election systems to confirm the allegations made. Instead, there is evidence that Hoft-TGP disregarded credible sources of information that refuted their allegations, including statements by … former U.S. Attorney General Barr that there was no evidence of widespread fraud. There is evidence the allegations against Coomer were inherently improbable. Yet Hoft-TGP 93 republished and embellished these allegations. There is evidence that Hoft-TGP allegations against Coomer conformed to a preconceived storyline of fraud given their allegations of fraud leading up and after the election. … This evidence is sufficient to support a finding of actual malice as well as overcome Hoft-TGP’s professions of good faith.”

Hoft is now appealing the judge’s dismissal.  Meanwhile, however, he also faces charges of defamation in St. Louis Circuit Court.  Here the plaintiffs are two Georgia poll workers who said they, like Coomer, had also received death threats and been harassed online and in-person after Hoft falsely accused them – in their case of cheating for Biden in counting the votes in Atlanta.  That case made national news when the two women, Ruby Freeman and Wandrea Moss, testified before the Special House Committee Investigating the Jan. 6 Attack on the Capitol.  That case isn’t expected to go to trial here – if it does — until roughly the beginning of 2024.

Nothing of this nature is presented in the filings that Schmitt and Hoft have made with the court in Louisiana.  Instead, the first amended complaint describes Hoft as follows:

 “The Gateway Pundit is one of the most popular conservative news sites in the country, with over 2.5 million web searches per day. Mr. Hoft maintains and operates The Gateway Pundit’s social-media accounts, including a Facebook account with over 650,000 followers, an Instagram account with over 205,000 followers, and (until its recent permanent suspension) a Twitter account with over 400,000 followers.” He is part of a group, the complaint continues, a “social-media titan(s) … one of the most influential online voices in the country, with over a million social-media followers.” 

A second amended complaint, which was filed just Oct. 6 and added 47 more defendants to the case – there are now 67 in all — contains the same language.  

The complaint goes on to say that Hoft and the other individual plaintiffs “have suffered and are suffering grave and ongoing injuries” from the alleged suppression. It cites the “demonetization of Plaintiff Hoft from Google” as one of those injuries. It does not, however, ask for monetary damages.  It simply asks for a finding that the government has overstepped and must stop it.

Money, however, is at stake for Hoft in all of these issues, as the demonetization from Google reference makes clear. Hoft has been complaining for years about being suppressed on social media, and in February of 2021, started fundraising off of it.  This post is still running on his website: 

“Behind the scenes, there’s a battle for survival of The Gateway Pundit. For 15 years, we’ve been fighting Big Tech and Leftists who want to shut us down. They’ve censored us on social media. They’ve defamed us in the media. They’ve restricted the advertising that pays our bills. And yet, we soldier on. We’re putting up more articles than ever. We’re digging deeper into corruption and fraud. We’re continuing to fight.

“Many of you have asked how to help, and we finally have a way: You can now subscribe to The Gateway Pundit.” 

You can also buy Gateway Pundit merch.

Schmitt did not issue a press release in August when Hoft and the other individuals joined his suit.  

But Hoft has not been shy about the state’s embrace.  Some sample headlines:  

And by August 11, he was writing that he had no longer just joined the case, he was leading it: 

Hoft is likely not the only winner, however.  Schmitt has reason to be happy too.

During the primary season, when he was facing off against former Mo. Gov. Eric Greitens and other rivals, the Gateway Pundit did not have a kind word to spare for Schmitt. He was a “career politician,” and what’s worse, a “RINO” (Republican in Name Only). He drew headlines like this one, from Sept. 16, 2021:

Breaking: General Flynn Endorses MAGA Navy SEAL Eric Greitens, Blasts RINO Eric Schmitt for Ties to Chinese Communist Party.

 And here is what Hoft wrote on his website this past Sept. 1:

“If this were a Star Wars spinoff, we’d call it “Free-Speech Wars II: The Good Guys Strike Back.” 

 (Note: Hoft’s joining the case, it should be noted, does not mean he is represented by the state; he has his own lawyer, St. Louis attorney John C. Burns.  So do the other individual plaintiffs, who are: Jill Hines, a Louisianan who has supported giving the state’s residents the right to accept or reject vaccines or any form of health care; Dr. Aaron Kheriaty, a medical ethicist and former psychiatry professor at the University of California Irvine who was fired in late 2021 for refusing to be vaccinated after claiming natural immunity from a prior COVID-19 infection; Martin Kulldorff, a former Harvard University professor of medicine; and Jayanta Bhattacharya, a professor of health policy at Stanford University School of Medicine. Kuldorff and Bhattacharya were two of the three authors of the so-called Great Barrington Declaration, an open letter, published in October 2020, which advocated against lockdowns and for letting Covid sweep through most of the population, creating herd immunity, while only the most vulnerable were protected.)  

Paul Wagman is a former Post-Dispatch reporter and FleishmanHillard executive who is now an independent reporter, editor and communications consultant. He wrote an investigative report earlier this year for GJR on the involvement of St. Louis Republican officials in the election denial myth.