Citing a BuzzFeed News article published Thursday, attorneys for five defendants in the alleged plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer are seeking information about an FBI agent with a previously undisclosed relationship to a cybersecurity company.
The article revealed that the special agent, Jayson Chambers, is the registered owner of an “internet intelligence company” called Exeintel LLC, and that an online troll claiming to be Exeintel’s CEO appeared to have tweeted about the Michigan investigation before it was revealed to the public.
The defense attorneys have previously sought data from Chambers’ cellular phone. The new pleading, filed late Friday night, argues that the revelations about Exeintel underscore the urgency of their request.
Attorneys for Adam Fox, Barry Croft, Kaleb Franks, Daniel Harris, and Brandon Caserta are also seeking cellphone data from a second FBI agent, Henrik Impola, and a confidential informant in the case, identified in court papers as “Dan,” “Big Dan,” or “Thor.”
According to evidence presented by law enforcement, Dan infiltrated an armed extremist group called the Wolverine Watchmen and recorded hundreds of hours of conversations and text messages for the FBI as members of the group developed what prosecutors call a plot to kidnap Whitmer. A total of 14 people have been brought up on a variety of state and federal charges, many of them classified as domestic terrorism. Many of the defendants have argued that they were entrapped, and in the new pleading, five of them claim that access to the cellphone data is essential to making their case.
In the brief filed late Friday, the defense attorneys also cited a message from Chambers to Dan, apparently directing him to urge another suspect to plot against the governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam. A screenshot of a text message allegedly sent by Chambers to Dan that is included in the new filing reads, “Mission is to kill the governor specifically.”
The suspect, a Vietnam veteran identified only as “Frank” in the filing, was ultimately not charged in the case.
The FBI referred comment on court filings to the Justice Department. A spokesperson for the US Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Michigan did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the matter. Chambers did not respond to a request for comment.
The BuzzFeed News article reported that a right-wing troll, @ravagiing, who claimed to be the CEO of Exeintel appeared to tweet multiple times about the Michigan investigation before it was revealed to the public, including one just hours before the suspects were arrested in October. The story also found that Chambers had incorporated a company by the same name more than a year earlier — although it was not possible to determine Chambers’ relation to the Twitter account.
FBI policy bars special agents from owning companies or having second jobs without express permission from the bureau. Attempts to contact the holder of the @ravagiing account were not successful.
There is no indication that the tweets had any impact on the case. One defendant, Ty Garbin, who pleaded guilty early this year, was sentenced this week to 75 months in prison. Thirteen other defendants have pleaded not guilty. A trial for the federal defendants — Fox, Croft, Harris, Franks, and Caserta — is set for Oct. 12.
Those five men have asked that prosecutors hand over a variety of evidence about the case, including information about as many as a dozen confidential informants employed by the government during the investigation. The Justice Department has resisted those calls, arguing it has provided all that is legally required.
In Friday’s filing, defense attorneys argued that if Chambers’ relationship to Exeintel meant he had a financial stake in the investigation, that was all the more reason that prosecutors should be compelled to hand over the information contained on his phone.
“If the government was unaware of this information until the BuzzFeed article was published, then the government should agree to disclose the information immediately,” the attorneys wrote. “If the government knew about the information earlier, the problem is much greater.”
A hearing on those discovery issues is scheduled for next Thursday in Grand Rapids federal court.