The Sandy Hook Families’ Looming Battle for Alex Jones’s Millions – The New York Times

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The Infowars fabulist’s empire is only worth a fraction of the $1 billion he has been ordered to pay the families, and he won’t surrender it easily.
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Elizabeth Williamson and
WATERBURY, Conn. — The nearly $1 billion in damages a jury ordered Alex Jones and his Infowars company to pay for defaming the families of eight Sandy Hook victims this week was an overwhelming victory in the families’ quest for accountability. But the fight for the money has only begun.
Lawyers for the families started early on Thursday to navigate what promises to be a circuitous path to delivering as much as possible of the $965 million verdict, plus court costs, to the families. There is also the $50 million awarded to two other Sandy Hook parents in a trial this past summer, and damages yet to be assessed in an upcoming third and final trial this year.
“We are going to chase Alex Jones to the ends of the earth,” for “every last dollar,” Josh Koskoff, one of the lawyers for the 15 Connecticut plaintiffs, said on Thursday. The group includes eight victims’ families and an F.B.I. agent implicated in the bogus Sandy Hook theories spread by Mr. Jones, who for years said that the 2012 shooting that killed 20 first graders and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., was a government hoax and that the families were actors in the plot.
But experts said that Wednesday’s verdict was so staggering as to be largely symbolic, since Mr. Jones’s empire is likely worth a maximum of $270 million, according to a forensic economist who had testified in the earlier trial.
“Once you pick a number that is way beyond a party’s ability to pay, it doesn’t matter what number you pick,” said Marie T. Reilly, a law professor at Penn State University. “That number could have been $20 billion.”
Avi Moshenberg, another lawyer for the families, acknowledged that “whether Jones’s company will pay 100 cents on the dollar is an open question.” But, he added, “Justice here means getting that judgment paid, and that’s what we intend to do.”
It is impossible to say where things are headed so early in what could be a yearslong process, given Mr. Jones’s vow to appeal the damages verdict, and an ongoing bankruptcy fight involving Free Speech Systems, Infowars’ parent company. But a few potential scenarios are possible, legal and financial experts said.
A united front. Alex Jones, a far-right conspiracy theorist, is the focus of a long-running legal battle waged by families of victims of a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012. Here is what to know:
Pushing misinformation. Mr. Jones used his Infowars media company to spread lies about Sandy Hook, claiming that the attack in 2012, in which 20 first graders and six educators were killed, was a hoax. The families of the victims say Mr. Jones’s lies have added to their devastation and his followers have harassed them, threatening their safety.
Defamation lawsuits. The families of 10 Sandy Hook victims sued Mr. Jones in four separate lawsuits. The cases never made it to a jury; Mr. Jones was found liable by default in all of them because he refused to turn over documents, including financial records, ordered by the courts over four years of litigation.
Mr. Jones’s line of defense. The Infowars host has claimed that his right to free speech protected him, even though the outcome of the cases was due to the fact that he failed to provide the necessary documents and testify.
Three trials. There will be three trials in total to determine how much Mr. Jones must pay the families of the Sandy Hook victims. The first two trials were held in Austin, Texas, and Waterbury, Conn., while the third trial is tentatively scheduled for later this year in Austin, but a date has not yet been set.
The damages. On Oct. 12, the jury in Connecticut awarded nearly $1 billion in damages to the families of eight Sandy Hook victims and an F.B.I. agent who responded to the scene. A judge later added $473 million in fees to the award. The earlier trial in Texas ended with Mr. Jones being ordered to pay $4 million in compensatory damages and $45.2 million in punitive damages.
The families could be entitled to Mr. Jones’s future earnings, whether at Infowars or a company he has yet to create, similar to how the Internal Revenue Service can garnish wages. In one sense, that would make the Sandy Hook families Mr. Jones’s bosses and make him legally required to turn over the profits from his sales of survivalist gear, iodine drops and supplements like Brain Force Plus. But that could mean that Infowars, where Mr. Jones has for years spread lies defaming the families, would survive and do more harm, presenting a terrible dilemma for them.
In another option, legal experts said the families could sell their claims to hedge funds or other investors at a fraction of their value, which would give them cash upfront rather than waiting years for a payout. The investors would then take ownership of the claims and attempt to profit by investigating Mr. Jones’s assets and trying to recover as much of the original judgment as possible.
In a third potential scenario, the bankruptcy court could order the liquidation of Mr. Jones’s business. Free Speech Systems and its assets, from real estate to office furniture, could be sold off for cash, which would go to the families.
Mr. Jones has vowed to fight at all costs. On Wednesday he called the verdict a “joke” and urged his viewers to “flood us with donations” to fund an appeal.
“Do these people actually think they’re getting any money?” he said. “For hundreds of thousands of dollars, I can keep them in court for years.”
Lawyers for the families say they are confident Wednesday’s sweeping judgment would survive the process intact. But an appeal could still put the brakes on the families’ ability to collect the money while giving Infowars time to devise a strategy for avoiding collection when the judgments are final, legal experts said.
“The more time a debtor has, they can throw up smoke screens and obfuscate and conceal and hide,” Ms. Reilly said.
In order to appeal, Mr. Jones may need to post a bond to protect the assets during that process. If Mr. Jones loses the appeal, the families will get the bond money.
After the appeals process, a potential next step, Mr. Moshenberg said, would be for Mr. Jones and his legal team to submit a plan to the bankruptcy court in Houston for paying the award.
The families expect to “have a big say” in any plan Mr. Jones submits, Mr. Moshenberg said, adding that the bankruptcy laws governing Free Speech Systems’ reorganization allows for a five-year plan for making payments to creditors.
Such a plan could potentially be concluded by the end of this year, but it is far from a done deal. The families are already challenging Free Speech Systems’ bankruptcy, saying it is another delaying tactic.
The families are suing Mr. Jones for fraudulent transfer, saying he has been siphoning money from his business into financial vehicles that benefit himself and his relatives.
Last month, Judge Christopher Lopez dismissed Mr. Jones’s chosen lawyer and chief restructuring officer in the bankruptcy, citing conflicts of interest. He issued a series of orders aimed at strengthening independent oversight of Free Speech Systems, citing a “lack of transparency” and a “lack of candor” in some of the company’s financial arrangements and expenses, including $80,000 Mr. Jones said he needed to spend on “security” for his trip to Connecticut to testify in the damages trial.
Mr. Jones and his entourage flew to Waterbury for the trial on a private jet, and stayed in a rented villa with a swimming pool and tennis court.
The lawsuit that resulted in Wednesday’s award targeted Mr. Jones personally, as well as his company. Mr. Jones has not filed for personal bankruptcy, keeping him personally on the hook for the awards.
Elizabeth Williamson reported from Waterbury and Emily Steel from New York.
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