FBI agents recruited a Proud Boys leader to provide them with information about antifa networks months before he was charged with storming the U.S. Capitol with other members of the far-right extremist group, a defense attorney says.
Proud Boys “thought leader” and organizer Joseph Biggs agreed to provide the FBI with information about anti-fascist activists in Florida and elsewhere after an agent contacted him in late July 2020 and arranged to meet at a restaurant, Biggs’ lawyer, J. Daniel Hull, wrote Monday in a court filing.
The two agents who met with Biggs wanted to know what he was “seeing on the ground," Hull said. Over the next few weeks, Biggs answered an agent's follow-up questions in a series of phone calls.
"They spoke often," added Hull, who is petitioning a judge to keep Biggs out of jail pending trial.
The defense lawyer's claims buttress a widely held view among left-leaning ideological opponents of the Proud Boys that law enforcement has coddled them, condoned their violence and even protected them during their frequent street brawls with anti-fascists. The Proud Boys even have counted some law enforcement officers among their ranks, including a Connecticut police officer and a Louisiana sheriff's deputy.
Biggs also received “cautionary” phone calls from FBI agents and routinely spoke with local and federal law enforcement officials in Portland, Oregon, about rallies he was planning there in 2019 and 2020, according to Hull.
“These talks were intended both to inform law enforcement about Proud Boy activities in Portland on a courtesy basis but also to ask for advice on planned marches or demonstrations, i.e., what march routes to take on Portland streets, where to go, where not to go,” Hull wrote.
FBI Director Christopher Wray has said there was no evidence that antifa was to blame for the Jan. 6 violence. But that hasn’t stopped some on the right from making the claims.
Antifa was the Trump administration's villainous scapegoat for much of last year's social unrest following the death of George Floyd. Trump and then-Attorney General William Barr blamed antifa activists for some of the violence at protests over police killings of Black people across the U.S.
The FBI and the Justice Department had launched a number of investigations into extremist groups around that time. They were focused on whether people were violating federal law by crossing state lines to commit violence or whether anyone was paying to send antifa followers to commit violence, a law enforcement official told The Associated Press. The official could not discuss the investigations publicly and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity.
FBI agents responded to police stations in several cities, including New York, to question suspects arrested during protests and focused on those who self-identified as followers of the movement, the official said.
But investigators struggled to make any cases, in part because there is no hierarchical structure to antifa; it's not a single organization but rather an umbrella term for far-left-leaning militant groups that confront or resist neo-Nazis and white supremacists at demonstrations, according to the official.
The FBI would not comment on why agents were meeting with Biggs or why the bureau was trying to solicit information about antifa through the Proud Boys.
Biggs, 37, of Ormond Beach, Florida, wouldn't be the first Proud Boys informant. The group's chairman and top leader, Enrique Tarrio, previously worked undercover and cooperated with investigators after he was accused of fraud in 2012, court documents show.
Eric Ward, executive director of the Portland-based Western States Center, which tracks hate groups, said it was “deeply concerning” to learn that Biggs had worked with the FBI, particularly because law enforcement has “frequently maintained inappropriately close relations with far-right groups." The Proud Boys actively promoted violence and street brawling at the rallies in Portland, he said, and Biggs “called for violence in the streets.”
“Law enforcement has no credible reason for working with someone like Biggs. It’s long past time for a clear accounting of institutional and professional law enforcement relationships with groups espousing political violence at home and abroad,” Ward wrote in an email.
Biggs and three other Proud Boys leaders were indicted March 10 on charges that they planned and carried out a coordinated attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6 to stop Congress from certifying President Joe Biden’s electoral victory. At least 20 others in the group have been charged in federal court with offenses related to the riots out of about 350 people charged so far in the deadly riot.
Proud Boys members describe themselves as a politically incorrect men’s club for “Western chauvinists.” Vice Media co-founder Gavin McInnes, who founded the Proud Boys in 2016, sued the Southern Poverty Law Center for labeling it as a hate group. In response, the law center said Proud Boys members often spread “outright bigotry” over the internet and have posted social media pictures of themselves with prominent Holocaust deniers, white nationalists and “known neo-Nazis.”
Justice Department prosecutors want to jail Biggs while he and the others await trial because he “presents a danger not only based on his own potential violence, but violence by others who undoubtedly still support him."
But Biggs' lawyer said the incarceration bid hinges on evidence that is speculative at best.
“Importantly, the FBI has known about his political commentary and role in planning events and counter-protests in Portland and other cities since at least July 2020 and arguably benefitted from that knowledge in efforts to gather intelligence about Antifa in Florida and Antifa networks operating across the United States,” Hull wrote.
The disclosures are reminiscent of an earlier collaboration between law enforcement and a right-wing group in Portland during repeated clashes between left- and right-wing demonstrators. The far-right group Patriot Prayer staged multiple rallies and marches in the liberal city, drawing out hundreds of residents to oppose its message in standoffs that sometimes ended in violence.
In 2019, Portland opened an internal investigation after more than 11,500 text messages between Patriot Prayer founder Joey Gibson and police Lt. Jeff Niiya became public. Niiya was cleared in the investigation, but the episode led to training and changes in the way liaison officers communicate with groups before and during planned protests.