I began writing Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth in 2018, nearly six years after the 2012 shooting deaths of 20 first-graders and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. That year, the families of 10 Sandy Hook victims sued conspiracy theorist and broadcaster Alex Jones of Infowars for defamation in four lawsuits filed in Texas and Connecticut.
Jones spread lies about the crime and the Sandy Hook families for years, accusing them of acting in a false flag operation, an Obama administration pretext for seizing Americans’ firearms. People who believed Jones attacked the families online, threatened their lives, accosted them on the street and at memorial events for their loved ones. A gun was fired into the home of one parent. Lenny Pozner and Veronique de la Rosa, parents of Noah Pozner, the youngest Sandy Hook victim, lived in hiding, moving repeatedly after conspiracists posted their addresses.
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Jones’ audience, millions of Americans deeply distrustful of the federal government, proved instrumental to Trump’s winning the presidency. Jones moved from the far-right fringes to center stage, his dark theories about Muslims, immigrants, Democrats, and rigged elections echoed by the new president. Court records suggest Jones reaped annual revenues of more than $50 million during the Trump years, selling diet supplements and dubious cures, body armor and gun paraphernalia to his listeners.
Lenny Pozner was a technology expert who devoted his life after Noah’s death to battling the conspiracists and the social media platforms that enabled them. He viewed Sandy Hook, the first mass shooting to generate viral false claims, as a foundational story of how misinformation has gained traction in American society. In my book I trace the through line from Sandy Hook to Pizzagate, QAnon, coronavirus myths, the 2020 election lie and the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection to show that Lenny was right.
Jones is fighting a half-dozen defamation lawsuits filed by the targets of his bogus claims and has been subpoenaed by the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 riot. His revolving cast of lawyers has included First Amendment absolutists, culture warriors, and attention seekers. But one lawyer on Jones’ team eschewed the limelight. Mark Bailen, then a Washington-based partner at the prestigious firm of BakerHostetler, advised Jones throughout the Trump years, including, court documents say, on Sandy Hook. Bailen’s spouse is Jessica Rosenworcel, the new chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commission. In late 2021, reporting on Rosenworcel’s anticipated nomination, I asked the couple about Bailen’s work for Jones, and whether they considered it potentially problematic. Bailen — who left BakerHostetler at the end of February — said no, distanced himself from Jones and Sandy Hook, and complained to The New York Times, my employer.
Court records filed after my book went to press suggest Bailen and BakerHostetler advised Infowars as the Sandy Hook cases dragged through the courts. Jones repeatedly defied court orders to produce business and other records. In late 2021, about a year after BakerHostetler stopped working for Jones, judges ruled Jones liable by default in all four Sandy Hook lawsuits, a sweeping victory for the families. In trials beginning this spring, juries will decide how much Infowars must pay the families in damages. Infowars documents provided to the families’ Texas lawyers in preparation for those trials say Bailen “had to withdraw because of his wife’s employment.”
“I was certainly surprised to find documents showing an elite D.C. society lawyer had been behind the scenes helping coordinate this catastrophe from its earliest stages,” said Mark Bankston, the Texas lawyer who represents Lenny and Veronique as well as Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, parents of Jesse Lewis, who also perished at Sandy Hook. “I don’t understand the motivation, but it struck me as cowardly not to put your name on this, to hide behind the scenes.”
Bailen left BakerHostetler on Feb. 28. A spokesperson for the firm had no further information.
This excerpt from Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth begins with a conversation I had with Kyle Farrar, Mark Bankston, and Bill Ogden, lawyers for the Sandy Hook families in Texas, shortly after the Texas lawsuits were filed in 2018. In their offices in Houston, the three lawyers speculated about who Jones might hire to defend him.
I asked how they would define a victory in the cases. How far were the families prepared to take this?
“A ‘Sorry, my bad,’ is not gonna solve this,” Bankston said. “The families know, and we understand too, that a verdict from a jury of his neighbors and peers is going to be very culturally meaningful, and have more impact on how he has to do business, than a settlement will ever be.”
Farrar remarked that in the space of several weeks, four parties had sued Jones for defamation: Lenny and Veronique; Neil; Marcel Fontaine; and a musician and former State Department employee named Brennan Gilmore. In August 2017 while demonstrating against the white nationalist Unite the Right march in Charlottesville, Virginia, Gilmore filmed a neo-Nazi speeding his car into a crowd of counterprotestors, killing Heather Heyer, thirty-two, and wounding a score of others. Infowars and others falsely accused Gilmore of being a government operative, fomenting violence to discredit Trump.
In response to each suit, Jones had only doubled down.
“I’m sort of shocked he doesn’t have a lawyer trying to tackle him, going, ‘Dude, just stop talking about this.’
“You’re not doing yourself any favors, you know?’” Farrar said.
The three lawyers wondered who would defend Jones in Lenny’s and Neil’s cases. Jones could certainly afford counsel, and had lawyers at his disposal in other cases. But defending him against the Sandy Hook parents presented a different and unsavory challenge.
“I don’t think any of what I would consider some of the prestigious defense firms would want their name associated with him,” Farrar mused. “Who wants to sign on to that?”
Months later, the Texas lawyers got an answer. Mark Bailen is a Washington, D.C.–based partner at BakerHostetler, one of America’s best-known law firms. For reasons even his fellow media lawyers told me they struggle to understand, Bailen quietly represented Jones on several matters during the Trump era.
In early 2017, after James Alefantis discovered that an Alex Jones video had brought the gunman to Comet, Bailen brought Alefantis, his lawyers, and Jones together in BakerHostetler’s elegant offices near the White House. While Jones sputtered and raged, convinced Hillary Clinton lurked behind the legal threat, Bailen brokered Jones’ stilted public retraction, avoiding a lawsuit.
A month later, when Chobani founder Hamdi Ulukaya sued Jones for falsely accusing him of “importing migrant rapists” to the U.S., Bailen again represented Jones. Jones broadcasted a belated retraction, and Chobani dropped the suit.
BakerHostetler and Bailen were defending Infowars in the Gilmore suit in Charlottesville, too.
It would take the Texas lawyers a while to discover traces of BakerHostetler’s work in at least one Sandy Hook case. In a court filing in Neil’s lawsuit dated August 27, 2018, Jones’ father, David Jones, referred to Mark Bailen of BakerHostetler as “one of our lawyers.”
The elder Jones’ declaration included a letter Bailen sent to Google on Infowars’ behalf on August 16, 2018, after Google terminated its content hosting services agreement with Free Speech Systems, LLC, Infowars’ parent company.
Not long after that, Bankston found a 2018 Infowars email in a trove of Infowars documents released as part of pre-trial discovery, in which Mark Bailen and Texas lawyer Eric Taube “were deciding on what evidence to secure, what transcripts to get for discovery,” in Neil’s lawsuit against Jones, Bankston told the judge in an August 2021 court hearing. Separately, I read another 2018 Infowars email released in court proceedings that described Infowars staffers’ efforts to gather and send documents to Bailen.
“Bailen is a well-recognized, well-respected First Amendment defamation lawyer,” a lawyer who dealt with Bailen in his capacity as an adviser to Jones told me. “I couldn’t tell you whether this is something he really believes in passionately, or it’s a client he got that pays the bills.”
Bailen doesn’t like to answer questions about his work for Jones.
In late 2021 Bailen’s wife, Jessica Rosenworcel, was the acting chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commission. She was campaigning to be President Biden’s nominee as permanent chair of the powerful broadcast and telecommunications regulator. I had not met Bailen or Rosenworcel, a communications lawyer from Connecticut with long experience and a solid record at the commission, but the two are a Washington “it” couple, well-known in D.C.’s overlapping legal and government circles. In a speech to the National Association of Broadcasters in 2018, Rosenworcel urged them to fight back against Trump’s efforts to undermine a free press, saying that her own young son had used the term “fake news” at the family dinner table. But the other parent presumably at the table that night was Bailen, whose client Alex Jones claimed to have coined Trump’s phrase “enemy of the American people” to discredit the mainstream media.
In an interview for the Times about her bid for the FCC job, I asked Rosenworcel about Bailen’s work for Jones. They lead “very separate professional lives,” she told me, so I should ask Bailen. Rosenworcel added that BakerHostetler had ended its relationship with Jones. Bailen said BakerHostetler had stopped representing Jones in the Gilmore case in Charlottesville in late 2020, a couple of months before Biden’s election.
Rosenworcel had the strong support of Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut. I asked him whether it mattered that Bailen had worked for Jones. The senator had not known about it. He said it was “irrelevant” to him, adding that he didn’t know Bailen. Then one of his staffers called Rosenworcel, saying the senator had been “ambushed” with the question.
I invited Bailen, who had once handled a couple of cases for the Times, to lunch for an interview. He agreed, postponed, and asked for questions in writing. He repeatedly contacted the Times’ legal department, complaining that news of his work for Jones could unfairly hurt his wife’s chances for the FCC job, and angry that I had raised it with Blumenthal, who represented most of the Sandy Hook families in the Senate. David McCraw, the Times’ principal newsroom lawyer, encouraged Bailen to sit for the interview he had agreed to.
A couple of weeks later, Biden nominated Rosenworcel as FCC chairwoman. I wrote an article for the Times that included a description of Bailen’s unsuccessful efforts to engage Times Legal on the couple’s behalf.
Bailen had raised concerns about journalistic fairness and standards, and objected to the “tone” of my questions. This was one: “A firm of BakerHostetler’s caliber can choose its clients. Why did Baker choose to represent Jones?”
“A hallmark of First Amendment law is that it seeks to protect speech that may be unfair, unpopular, and sometimes outrageous,” Bailen wrote. (He insisted that all our exchanges be in writing.)
Neither he nor BakerHostetler had been Infowars’ “counsel of record” in the Sandy Hook lawsuits, he wrote. I knew that: His involvement was strictly behind the scenes. Bailen called my reporting on his work for Infowars “inaccurate,” but when I asked for specifics, he declined to provide any, writing, “My ethical obligations as a lawyer prevent me from discussing details of former client engagements, irrespective of whether any elements of them have become public.”
Kyle Farrar was right. No prestigious firm wanted to be associated with Jones’ battle against the Sandy Hook families. At least not publicly.
From SANDY HOOK by Elizabeth Williamson, published by Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Elizabeth Williamson.
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