The first Jan. 6 rioter sentenced for a felony charge began mounting a desperate bid Wednesday to unravel his plea agreement, claiming through a newly retained attorney that his signature on the deal was forged.
But the federal judge in the case, Randy Moss, expressed skepticism about the claim and noted it could even put Paul Hodgkins at legal risk, since he said under oath that he had reviewed and accepted the plea deal.
Hodgkins was charged with felony obstruction of Congress for breaching the Capitol and making his way to the floor of the Senate, where images show him donning gloves and rifling through some papers left in the evacuated room. He pleaded guilty to the charge in June, while being represented by attorney Patrick Leduc, a JAG Reserve officer who later deployed to Qatar, where he is assisting with Afghan refugee rescue operations.
Moss sentenced Hodgkins in July to an eight-month jail term, far below the government’s recommended 16-month sentence, an acknowledgment that Hodgkins was among the first to accept responsibility for his role in the breach. But Hodgkins’ new claim puts the matter into turmoil.
Hodgkins had asked Moss to delay his jail sentence, which is set to begin on Sept. 20, until January, giving him time to mount his effort to unwind the plea agreement. But Moss rejected that attempt Wednesday afternoon, saying Hodgkins “has not demonstrated good cause for the requested four-month delay.”
His new attorney, Carolyn Stewart, made the forgery allegation during a hearing called by Moss to address Hodgkins’ claim that Leduc provided ineffective counsel. She said she retained handwriting expert Curt Baggett to review the document and confirmed that it was not Hodgkins’ signature on the agreement. Baggett, she said, would be willing to testify to it in court.
Stewart suggested that the allegedly forged signature was one of many irregularities tainting the case.
“It’s mind boggling,” the defense attorney said, mentioning that she is attuned to such patterns because of her work as an intelligence analyst in Afghanistan. “These kinds of things keep popping up … I’m floored.”
LeDuc said in an email to POLITICO that the claim of a forged signature was “insane” and that he painstakingly reviewed the deal with Hodgkins.
“I went over every single line of that plea agreement with Paul for about three hours to include the factual stipulations and he signed the thing in front of me and then came back and [re-signed] the other form as well,” he said. “Nothing happened in the case without Paul’s consent. I don’t understand any of this this. It is insane and I am just so over it all.”
In a phone interview, Baggett confirmed he conducted the analysis of Hodgkins’ handwriting at Stewart’s request and indeed concluded the signature had been forged.
It’s unclear, though, what bearing the allegation has on Hodgkins’ guilt, since he entered the plea in an open court hearing and acknowledged his guilt for the alleged offenses, and Moss ran through many of the provisions of the deal with him.
The judge didn’t opine directly on the forgery allegation Wednesday, but he did note that the reason “a lot of time” was spent on the colloquy with Hodgkins is to “guard against” subsequent claims that the defendant didn’t understand the agreement or the consequences of pleading guilty.
Moss also warned Stewart that by claiming the signature was forged she could be suggesting that her client lied under oath in his statements at the plea hearing in June.
“I actually am concerned that in some sense you may actually be putting him in jeopardy with this,” said the judge, an appointee of former President Barack Obama.
Stewart’s allegation appeared to rankle prosecutor Mona Sedky, who called the Florida-based lawyer a “relatively new” attorney and said some of the messages she’d gotten from the lawyer were unconventional.
“I’ve been tolerant of a lot of very strange and and unorthodox communications, for lack of a better word, and I’ve been not putting it in my pleadings and not raising it with the court out of respect to her,” the prosecutor said.
Florida records show Stewart, who is based in Plant City, near Tampa, joined the bar late last year. She filed a notice with the court last month saying she was taking over as defense counsel for Hodgkins.
Stewart is seeking to appeal Hodgkins’ conviction and sentence. However, the period for filing an appeal expired last month. Stewart has also indicated plans to file a habeas corpus motion attacking Hodgkins’ conviction.
The attorney said when the forgery claim arose, she wanted to bring it to the court’s attention as quickly as possible, but Moss said he saw no urgency to act on it.
“I don’t see enough based on what I know now to think that there anything that I need to do and I’ve not been asked to do anything,” the judge said.
At the outset of the roughly 20-minute videoconference hearing, Stewart asked that the public telephone line be cut off and that the session go forward under seal.
Asked by Moss to justify the secrecy, Stewart said: “It’s about an an attorney and it’s an allegation of committing fraud on the court with a forgery. I do that out of courtesy knowing that this is public. He’s not here.”
However, the judge said that wasn’t a sufficient basis to close the session to the public.