While Kyle Rittenhouse awaits trial for killing two people at a Kenosha, Wisconsin, Black Lives Matter protest this summer, his lawyers are in prosecutors’ crosshairs.
From the start of the high-profile case, Rittenhouse’s lawyers have attracted nearly as much attention as he has. Now, the 17-year-old’s main lawyer, John Pierce, is off the case, after prosecutors argued that fundraisers for Rittenhouse could act as a “slush fund” for the embattled attorney. Another prominent attorney who has associated himself with Rittenhouse, Lin Wood, also appears to have pivoted away from the case in order to focus his efforts on overturning President Donald Trump’s 2020 election loss.
Rittenhouse was charged with reckless homicide after he fatally shot two people and wounded a third person at the August protest. He has pleaded not guilty, and says he acted in self-defense.
Pierce and Wood emerged as Rittenhouse champions shortly after his arrest. Earlier this year, the pair had banded together to launch the “#FightBack” foundation, an organization with a nebulous set of missions, many of them apparently litigating right-wing grievances with the media. Some of the foundation’s funds were redirected to Pierce’s own law firm.
#FightBack’s launch came at a fortunate moment for Pierce. The law firm he leads has been sued by at least four payday lenders and one legal services company this year, all of them alleging unpaid bills, The Daily Beast previously reported. In April, another lender accused the firm of owing them $65 million. The debts, plus an unspecified rehab stint for Pierce earlier this year, aligned with a recent exodus of more than 60 lawyers from Pierce’s firm.
Pierce and Wood advertised the #FightBack foundation as a way for Rittenhouse’s fans—of which there are many on the right—to donate money to his defense. But in a Thursday court appearance, prosecutors argued that the money stream could act as a “slush fund” to pay off Pierce’s debts.
Pierce had no income and monthly expenses of $49,481, prosecutors alleged in a motion. He was also approximately $1.2 million in debt, and was being sued for allegedly violating the rental agreement on his $1.3 million home.
“This creates a potential conflict of interest for attorney Pierce,” the motion read, as reported by The Chicago Tribune. “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.”
Pierce denied those allegations in an email to The Daily Beast. “The allegations you reference are ludicrous,” he wrote. “All of the funds are controlled by Kyle’s mother Wendy. In addition, I have no affiliation whatsoever with that foundation.” (In fact, Pierce was affiliated with #FightBack until September, when he stepped down the day after a Daily Beast report revealing its contributions to his law firm.)
Prosecutors also claimed Pierce had broken rules about attorney conduct, accusing him of potentially influencing future jurors with complaints about the district attorney overseeing the case. On Twitter, Pierce stoked ire against District Attorney Michael Graveley, claiming he was “in active (and weirdly familiar) texting communication with main BLM activist for six weeks prior to, during and after the riots.”
Pierce and another Rittenhouse defense attorney, Andrew Calderon, announced Thursday that they would withdraw from the case, shortly after prosecutors filed motions to disqualify them.
Pierce told The Daily Beast that the withdrawal “was always the plan.”
“Now that we have successfully gotten Kyle bailed out and have built an amazing criminal defense team in Wisconsin,” he said, “I am turning my 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.”
Those fundraising efforts might be in flux, however, as the #FightBack foundation turns its attention from Rittenhouse and toward overturning Trump’s 2020 loss.
“For the foreseeable future, #FightBack will be focusing on exposing fraud in the November 3 election,” Wood tweeted last week. (He is currently involved in long-shot lawsuits challenging the election results, and peddled false voter fraud theories in a press conference this week.) “Going forward, anyone who wishes to make donations for Kyle should contact his criminal defense attorney, John Pierce.”
Neither Lin nor Pierce answered questions on Friday about Pierce’s relationship with fundraising now that he is no longer Rittenhouse’s attorney.
Lin’s tweet also signaled that he was pulling away from Rittenhouse’s case. “Lin has withdrawn from representing Kyle,” Pierce confirmed to The Daily Beast.
Because Lin, who mostly handles defamation cases, was never officially Rittenhouse’s criminal attorney, his exact relationship with Rittenhouse’s legal team is unclear.
“I am not and have never been a criminal lawyer for Kyle. I am a civil trial lawyer,” Wood told The Daily Beast. He added that Pierce was no longer associated with #FightBack, which prosecutors had argued was a potential Pierce slush fund.
“John Pierce is not affiliated with my foundation,” Wood said. “I understand Mark Richards is the criminal lawyer for Kyle in Wisconsin.”
Richards, a Racine, Michigan, defense attorney confirmed that neither of the other two lawyers was representing Rittenhouse in the homicide case.
“I am representing Kyle in th criminal matter atty’s pierce & wood are not,” he wrote The Daily Beast in an email. “We are very thankful for all the support from both individuals, the foundation & the prople who have donated.” [sic]