For months, the lawyer representing Kaleb Franks—one of six men charged with conspiring to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer in 2020—has produced some of the most detailed and damning reports to make a case for FBI entrapment. Defense attorneys last year discovered that at least a dozen FBI agents and informants were intimately involved in the abduction plot, brought to a dramatic conclusion in October 2020 when the men were arrested after an FBI informant drove them to meet an undercover FBI agent to buy materials for explosives.
With the trial date just weeks away, the Justice Department’s case is imploding amid numerous scandals.
The timing could not be worse for the government, especially the FBI, which is now under scrutiny for its suspected role in fomenting the Capitol breach on January 6, 2021. After all, the two events share many similarities, including plans to “storm” Michigan’s state Capitol building, the use of militia groups reportedly loyal to Donald Trump, and official designations that both represent “domestic terror” attacks.
So a public trial that showcases FBI malfeasance at the same time the bureau is shunning questions about January 6 won’t be a reassuring look.
For example, FBI officials won’t disclose the number of “assets” connected to the Capitol protest or whether any FBI agents or informants engaged in violent behavior that day. Provocateurs, including Ray Epps, seen on video several times urging people to enter the building, remain uncharged. Yet the FBI refuses to explain why.
Further, the Justice Department just announced another delay in making hundreds of thousands of FBI documents available to defense attorneys representing January 6 protesters. It all reeks of a massive cover-up; exposing the FBI’s shady, and possibly criminal, involvement in the Whitmer case is certain to raise new questions about what the agency did before and during the January 6 incident.
In a motion filed last month, Kaleb Franks’ attorney Scott Graham cited the FBI’s nonanswers regarding January 6 as evidence of the agency’s shame.
“While this case boils toward trial, the country is in the midst of a critical debate over the illegal and unethical use of confidential informants and undercover investigative agents,” Graham wrote, citing U.S. Senator Ted Cruz’s (R-Texas) recent interrogation of Justice Department officials on the identity of Ray Epps and overall FBI participation in the Capitol protest. “Current national inquiries into FBI policy (on just the sort of overreaching use of confidential informants and undercover agents at issue in this case), and the agency’s refusal to address the issue, indicate a sort of government ‘consciousness of guilt’ with regard to egregious government investigative conduct, overreaching, and entrapment.”
Graham’s claims are backed by jaw-dropping developments in the case over the past several months. A lengthy exposé published at BuzzFeed News last summer explained how the Whitmer kidnapping plot coalesced under the direction of FBI agents in the Detroit field office who handled all of the undercover agents and informants. BuzzFeed reporters, no defenders of the political Right, nonetheless concluded “the extent of [the FBI’s] involvement raises questions as to whether there would have even been a conspiracy without them.”
But now, the Justice Department must proceed without some of those FBI assets. Richard Trask, the leading FBI agent who signed the federal criminal complaint, has been removed from the witness list after he was fired by the FBI for assaulting his wife in a drunken rage following a swingers party at a hotel near their home. Local reporters also unearthed Trask’s profane social media posts about Donald Trump.
Two of Trask’s colleagues also won’t take the stand for the prosecution: FBI agent Jayson Chambers is accused of running a security firm on the side and using his FBI position to promote the business, and FBI agent Henrik Impola is accused of committing perjury in another case. (Their boss, Steven D’Antuono, took over the FBI field office in Washington, D.C. several weeks before the Capitol protest; his office would have been primarily responsible for any FBI assets deployed to Capitol grounds on January 6.)
One of their key informants, a convicted felon several times over named Stephen Robeson, also is off the case. Robeson, who organized, executed, and paid for (with cash from the FBI) every kidnapping-related trip such as surveillance excursions, committed at least two other crimes while working the Whitmer caper. To discredit their own source, prosecutors now accuse Robeson of acting as a “double agent” and suggest he might be charged as a co-defendant in the kidnapping plot. At the very least, Robeson is expected to plead the Fifth if he is called as a witness for the defense.
Another informant, known as “Dan” to the group, was compensated at least $50,000 by the FBI for six months’ work.
So, with defense attorneys like Graham set to make a very public and convincing case of FBI entrapment and January 6 trials set to begin around the same time, the Justice Department did what it had to do.
It forced a guilty plea and signed confession out of Kaleb Franks.
After U.S. District Court Judge Robert Jonker delivered a series of blows to the defense—denying motions to raise misconduct by Trask, Impola, and Chambers if called by the defense as well as preventing jurors from reviewing recordings and texts to show how the FBI lured their clients into the kidnapping trap—the Justice Department put the screws to Franks.
Prosecutors warned of new gun charges against Franks for allegedly discussing with another defendant and confidential human source “Dan” his plans to make and sell a “ghost gun” to a convicted felon in September 2020. Judge Jonker also granted the government’s motion to inform the jury of Franks’ 2013 home invasion conviction when he was 19.
But then the Justice Department sought to further humiliate Franks. On January 25, prosecutors asked Judge Jonker to order a psychiatric evaluation of Franks, now 27, to be submitted to the jury. On February 2, Jonker instructed Franks to undergo the examination before trial.
Five days later, Franks pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to kidnap.
The offense carries a possible lifetime prison sentence. A co-defendant, Ty Garbin, pleaded guilty to the same charge last year and was sentenced to six years in jail.
But the Justice Department wasn’t satisfied with a victorious plea deal right before trial—it compelled Franks to sign another confession of sorts.
“The defendant became aware after his arrest that several individuals whom he believed to be fellow conspirators were actually undercover informants or agents, including Confidential Human Sources (CHS) ‘Dan’ and ‘Steve.’ The defendant was not entrapped or induced to commit any crimes by these individuals,” assistant U.S. Attorney Nils Kessler wrote in the government’s plea agreement on February 7. “The defendant also knows [his co-defendants] were not entrapped, based on personal observation and discussions. During all their months of training together, the defendant never heard [his co-defendants] say they were doing anything because CHS Dan, CHS Steve, or any other informant had advocated it.”
Franks further agreed to cooperate with the government.
But by pressuring Franks to publicly proclaim that his codefendants were not in any way induced by other agents of informants, the government laid bare the FBI’s “consciousness of guilt.” If this had been a clean operation and the government felt confident that the FBI did not entrap innocent men, prosecutors wouldn’t need to compel any statement from Franks. The Justice Department wouldn’t need to remove its top FBI agents from the case, threaten to charge its own longtime informant, or conceal messages that showed exactly how the plot went down.
If anything, prosecutors would want to brag about the FBI’s success in taking down a lethal right-wing mitilia group scheming to kidnap a Democratic governor ahead of Election Day, not hide all the details from the public and use an alleged domestic terrorist to legitimize their story.
Sure sounds like guilt.