Ray Epps, who was placed at the centre of a right-wing conspiracy theory alleging that he was a federal informant instigating a mob to storm the US Capitol on January 6, has pleaded guilty to a misdemeanour charge of disorderly conduct.
Mr Epps appeared virtually for a brief federal court appearance on 20 September to enter a plea agreement following a charge of disorderly or disruptive conduct on restricted grounds, as he admitted to breaching police barriers outside the building, placing his hands on a sign that pushed into police, and wrote text messages admitting his presence and role in the mob on the Capitol grounds.
FBI officials have repeatedly denied conspiracy theories surrounding Mr Epps, who is suing Fox News and Tucker Carlson for defamation after the now-former network host repeatedly amplified false claims that Mr Epps worked for the federal government. Prosecutors told the court on Wednesday that Mr Epps was neither a confidential source nor an undercover agent “for the government, FBI, DHS or law enforcement.”
Earlier on Wednesday, Republican US Rep Thomas Massie berated US Attorney General Merrick Garland during a House Judiciary Committee hearing while promoting the false claim that Mr Epps was an FBI informant.
“With respect to Mr Epps, the FBI has said he was not an employee or informant of the FBI,” Mr Garland said.
On his Tucker Carlson Tonight programme, Carlson claimed there is “no rational explanation” why this “mysterious figure” who “helped stage-manage the insurrection” had not yet been charged, among more than two dozen statements collected in the lawsuit, which notes that the claims were not isolated to Carlson’s prime-time program.
“Fox repeatedly published defamatory falsehoods about Epps, including by broadcasting and rebroadcasting defamatory statements by Tucker Carlson who devoted over two dozen segments to Epps and by republishing those falsehoods” across Fox platforms, according to the lawsuit.
Mr Epps – former wedding venue operator from Arizona who supported Donald Trump – did not go inside the Capitol, his image appeared only briefly on a government website for January 6 suspects, and he did not previously face arrest or charges, until now – all fuelling still-ongoing conspiracy theories that he was working with law enforcement to entrap Trump supporters, part of a long-running belief among Republicans that federal authorities are using the levers of power to discriminate against them.
Mr Epps was removed from that FBI “wanted” list after he turned himself in, prosecutors wrote in court filings. He gave two interviews to law enforcement and identified himself two days later.
The former president himself platformed bogus claims about Mr Epps’ wife on his Truth Social account. “Is this really true?” he wrote in a post that linked to a completely false claim that she worked for Dominion Voting Systems, the voting machine company subjected to a flood of bogus statements from Trump allies.
In sworn testimony to a House Judiciary Committee hearing earlier this year, FBI Director Christopher Wray shot down similar claims about Mr Epps.
“I will say this notion that somehow the violence at the Capitol on January 6 was part of some operation orchestrated by FBI sources and agents is ludicrous and is a disservice to our brave, hardworking dedicated men and women,” Mr Wray told the committee.
A lawyer for Dominic Pezzola – a member of the neo-fascist Proud Boys who used a stolen police shield to bash through a window into the Capitol – claimed in court filings that at least 40 undercover agents were present. Earlier this year, when he testified in his own defense at trial, Pezzola repeatedly invoked the conspiracy theory involving Mr Epps but admitted that he had no evidence.
Pezzola was later convicted on a range of charges, including robbery and assaulting, resisting or impeding police, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Michael Teter, Mr Epps’s lead counsel in his case against Fox News, said in a statement shared with The Independent that Mr Epps has “cooperated and has taken responsibility for his actions.”
“Today’s hearing and the plea agreement reached with the [US Department of Justice] is further proof of that,” he added.
“It is also powerful evidence of the absurdity of Fox News’s and Tucker Carlson’s lies that sought to turn Ray into a scapegoat for January 6. Had Ray been charged earlier, Fox News would have called him a hero and political prisoner. Instead, Fox News spread falsehoods about Ray that have cost him his livelihood and safety,” he added.