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D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine.
D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine. (Jahi Chikwendiu/Washington Post)

WASHINGTON — D.C. Democratic Attorney General Karl Racine on Tuesday sued the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers over the Jan. 6 attack on Congress, seeking to use a law written to cripple the Ku Klux Klan to exact stiff financial penalties from the far-right groups that Racine alleges were responsible for the violence.

The lawsuit filed in federal court in Washington, D.C., cites the modern version of an 1871 law known as the Ku Klux Klan Act, which was enacted after the Civil War to safeguard government officials carrying out their duties and protect civil rights. Two similar suits have been filed already this year related to Jan. 6 — one by Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss., the chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, and another by a number of police officers who fought the rioters that day.

Racine’s suit, however, is the first effort by a government agency to hold individuals and organizations civilly responsible for the violence at the U.S. Capitol on the day Congress ceremonially confirmed President Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory.

A similar legal tactic led to a $26 million verdict last month against more than a dozen of the nation’s most influential white supremacists and hate groups for their role in the deadly 2017 United the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. That trial evidence drew heavily on the defendants’ text messages, social media posts and videos to reconstruct how they conspired in advance of the violence.

In the 1980s, a lawsuit drove an Alabama-based faction of the Klan into bankruptcy, forcing members to turn over their local headquarters to the family of a murdered Black man.

Racine said the goal of the Jan. 6 lawsuit is “full restitution and recompense” for the city of Washington, which has incurred huge costs for treating hundreds of injured officers. “I think the damages are substantial,” he said in a phone interview. “If it so happens that it bankrupts or puts these individuals and entities in financial peril, so be it.”

The suit names as defendants Proud Boys International LLC, Oath Keepers and dozens of their most high-profile members — mostly individuals who are charged in federal court with committing crimes related to Jan. 6.

Racine declined to say whether he’d discussed the lawsuit with the U.S. Justice Department officials overseeing those criminal cases. Federal prosecutors have filed conspiracy charges against individuals affiliated with the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, and the FBI continues to investigate those groups’ activities in the days and months leading up to Jan. 6.

Racine’s civil suit was put together with the backing of two nonprofit groups that focused on the Jan. 6 assault: the States United Democracy Center and the Anti-Defamation League. Those groups and two private law firms served as pro bono outside counsel to the attorney general as he developed the case.

“There is no substitute for bringing a civil suit that seeks damages against each of the individuals and groups responsible,” said Norman Eisen, a veteran of the Obama White House Counsel’s Office who co-chairs the Democracy Center with former New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman, a Republican. “It is a way to assure those bad actors never do it again.”

The lawsuit also aims to unravel the financing behind the groups. “I’m particularly interested in understanding the financial apparatus of these individuals and entities and where the money came from,” Racine said.

Democratic Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting delegate in Congress, said the lawsuit could eventually provide much-needed resources to the city. She said $9 million in federal funding meant for the District would pay for costs related to Jan. 6, but that money does not cover medical treatment and leave for police officers.

One of the most badly injured was D.C. police officer Michael Fanone, who was shocked with a stun gun as rioters dragged him down the steps of the Capitol. Fanone lost consciousness and was stripped of his badge and gun; he suffered a heart attack and a traumatic brain injury.

“The domestic terrorists who stormed the Capitol and violently assaulted hundreds of brave law enforcement officers were stoked by groups promoting The Big Lie,” Fanone said in a statement. “Those of us who suffered physical and emotional harm trying to defend democracy will never forget, nor will we cease working to hold accountable everyone responsible for inciting the mob, wherever the evidence may lead.”

The lawsuit draws heavily on evidence gathered by federal prosecutors seeking to prove that dozens of Oath Keepers and Proud Boys members conspired to disrupt the peaceful transition of power. It says the defendants conspired “to prevent, interrupt, hinder, and impede, through force, intimidation, and threat ... United States officials from discharging official duties of their offices and positions of trust as part of the formal process for counting and certifying the count of electoral votes for the 2020 presidential election and declaring a winner of the 2020 presidential election.”

Except for Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio, all the named defendants in the lawsuit are also charged with federal crimes. Two have already pleaded guilty.

In the criminal cases, prosecutors have drawn on encrypted chats and emails to claim that the Oath Keepers planned for weeks in advance of Jan. 6 — recruiting new members, engaging in paramilitary training, setting up radios to stay in communication and stashing guns just across the river in Virginia.

Prosecutors say one Florida Oath Keepers member said in a Dec. 19 Facebook message that he had “formed an alliance” with the Proud Boys to “shut this [expletive] down,” and later referred to the Proud Boys as a “force multiplier.”

On Jan. 6, according to prosecutors, several Oath Keepers entered the Capitol in a militarylike “stack” with the goal of disrupting the electoral college count.

Stewart Rhodes, the Oath Keepers’ founder, has not been charged with a crime, nor is he named as a defendant in Racine’s lawsuit. Charging papers in the criminal cases refer to him simply as “Person One.” Prosecutors say he designated leaders for the Jan. 6 operation, huddling with them before they went in the building and staying in touch with them as they stormed the Capitol.

The portrait drawn in court filings of the Proud Boys’ pre-Jan. 6 planning is more diffuse. While the Oath Keepers embrace military gear and terminology, the Proud Boys are styled as a social club for like-minded men; their adherents are charged in small groups rather than in a single overarching indictment.

Prosecutors say Proud Boys were among the first to knock down barricades and breach the Capitol windows on Jan. 6 — paving the way for thousands of others to follow. Four prominent members of the group are set to go on trial in May.

Proud Boys leader Tarrio was jailed at the time of the riot for burning a “Black Lives Matter” flag stolen from a church during an earlier protest in D.C. But like Rhodes, he is described by prosecutors as coordinating with others who are accused of invading the building.

“Just spoke with” Tarrio; “we have a plan,” one Proud Boys leader allegedly said in an encrypted group chat on Jan. 5, according to prosecutors.

Members of both groups face charges that carry a penalty of decades in prison, even if they did not personally attack police or break anything. But so far they have not been charged with sedition or insurrection; instead, they are accused of obstructing an official proceeding.

Only a few of the dozens of Proud Boy and Oath Keeper defendants have agreed to plead guilty and cooperate with the government; many are challenging the legal basis for the charges. They say they were not conspiring to use violence against police or politicians but in battle with leftist counterprotesters, who had tangled with right-wing agitators at previous Trump rallies. Defense attorneys also contend prosecutors are stretching the obstruction law in a way that turns protesting into a crime.

The Oath Keepers “intended to affect the actions of Congress: otherwise known as political demonstration and protest,” wrote Carmen Hernandez, who represents one defendant in that group. “This application of the obstruction statute to a person . . . who was involved in a political demonstration, will chill the First Amendment rights of all Americans.”

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