A perennial political candidate from Montana who was once denied admission to the bar because of his criminal record and “connections to white supremacy groups” has been playing a behind the scenes role in the defense of Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes, one of the alleged organizers of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
Lawyer Roger Roots, who has mounted long shot libertarian bids for office in Montana in every election since 2012, has been assisting a lawyer newly tapped by Rhodes to mount a last-ditch drive to postpone Rhodes’ looming trial for seditious conspiracy, slated to begin Sept. 26.
U.S. District Court Judge Amit Mehta swiftly turned aside Rhodes’ effort and chastised the new attorney, Ed Tarpley of Louisiana, for appearing just weeks before trial and creating uncertainty around the complicated proceeding. Rhodes, in the same motion, attempted to fire his attorneys and replace them with Tarpley, but the Oath Keepers’ founder ultimately opted to maintain his legal team, which has handled his case for the last eight months.
However, Roots’ involvement escaped mention during last week’s court hearing, during which Mehta attempted to keep the complex, five-defendant trial on track. POLITICO located Roots’ name in metadata associated with Tarpley’s initial court filing seeking a delay and change of counsel. In an interview, Tarpley acknowledged that Roots advised him in writing it.
“He’s somebody that has helped with research and that sort of thing. He’s not taken an active role,” Tarpley said in a telephone interview. “We have a lot of people on the team scattered around the country that are doing various things. … He’s just one among many people pitching in to help Stewart Rhodes.”
Roots, 54, has a highly unusual history for a lawyer. He’s got two felony convictions, served time in federal prison and authored articles in the 1990s expressing racist views and referring to the U.S. government as a “Zionist Occupation Government,” according to an opinion the Rhode Island Supreme Court issued in 2000 denying him admission to that state’s bar at that time. He was later admitted to the Rhode Island bar and is still a member in good standing.
Roots worked in 1994 as a paid staffer on the reelection campaign of the late Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), but did so under a pseudonym, according to the court opinion. Roots was eventually “terminated because of his unsavory associations with white supremacist activists,” the court said. The court and reports prepared by a bar admission committee recounted a series of racist writings by Roots, opining on the purported intellectual inferiority of Blacks.
In a 2008 affidavit Roots sent to the Montana Human Rights Network, the libertarian activist said he had “no involvement in the white supremacist movement” and had not “spoken or written a racist statement in years.”
“I do not endorse any opinion I expressed during my twenties,” Roots told the group.
In 2014, Roots told a Montana newspaper that he was a “lost soul in my youth.”
“I used to be an extreme right winger, and I used to read the writings of Adolf Hitler and all kinds of racist materials,” Roots told the Sidney Herald.
Reached by phone Monday, Roots declined to discuss his earlier views or get into detail about his work for Rhodes.
“I do help political prisoners with legal research,” he said. “I don’t really want to go into any specific case.”
Tarpley, Rhodes’ new lawyer, said he wasn’t familiar with the details of Roots’ background. He said Rhodes faces an uphill battle in the trial set to begin next month over his objection and is scrambling to meet the challenge.
“We’ve sent the word out: if you can help us, give us a call,” Tarpley said. “We’re fighting the government. They’ve got all the money and all the resources and everything.”
Rhodes’ other attorneys, Dallas-based Phillip Linder and James Lee Bright, did not respond to requests for comment.
During a hearing last week, Mehta expressed frustration with the filing Tarpley and Roots prepared, which made sweeping claims of prosecutorial misconduct and failures in the legal process, many of which the judge said were untethered from reality, baseless or already dealt with. In addition, he said Rhodes’ existing attorneys had been diligent about communicating with the court.
“The notion that you are going to create the kind of havoc you will — and havoc is the only appropriate word I can think of — by moving Mr. Rhodes trial, it’s not going to happen,” Mehta said.
At one point during the court session, Mehta also said Tarpley seemed unfamiliar with the facts behind some of the claims in Rhodes’ request for a delay and to change attorneys. And in pretrial hearing Wednesday, Mehta said he’s “starting to question” whether Tarpley’s challenges to the proceedings were rendered “in good faith.”
While Tarpley said last week that he planned to work together with Linder and Bright on Rhodes’ defense, a flurry of court filings and motions Tarpley submitted Monday and early Tuesday bore no indication they’d been drafted or approved by Linder or Bright. However, Tarpley continued to press for a delay in Rhodes’ trial in a Tuesday motion that included the same metadata indicating Roots had a role in drafting it.
Roots’ precise relationship to Rhodes is unclear. He indicated in a Facebook post earlier this year that their relationship extends back to college, when Rhodes was at Yale Law School and led the student Federalist Society chapter and Roots led the corresponding group at Roger Williams University.
“My position on Stewart is like my position on most people: right now he is in a jam and I feel a sense that we need to rally in his behalf (or at least rally against the injustice he is currently facing),” Roots said in the May post. “He has obviously made mistakes (who hasn’t), but I believe he is totally innocent of these charges.”
He said, without elaborating, that he was “aware of [Rhodes’] failings.”
Roots posted about Rhodes as part of a broadside against the Justice Department’s case against him, complaining that prosecutors were “pressuring Stewart Rhodes and other Oathkeepers to take plea deals.”
Asked by POLITICO how he met Rhodes or came to assist him, Roots said: “I’ve been in libertarian circles for a long time. Along the way, I’ve probably met most libertarian luminaries.”
Prosecutors have cast Rhodes as the ringleader of a brazen plot to forcibly disrupt the transition of power from Donald Trump to Joe Biden, assembling a team of fellow Oath Keepers to amass weapons in Arlington, Va. and encouraged Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act to keep Biden from office.
More than a dozen members of the group breached the Capitol, some among the earliest wave of those who entered the building, although Rhodes himself remained outside on the Capitol grounds. Prosecutors have cited messages exchanged by some of the group’s members saying they were seeking out top lawmakers like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Rhodes has contended that his language was protected First Amendment speech, that his firearms purchase before and after Jan. 6 were lawful and that his group remained nonviolent throughout the breach of the Capitol.
Since his arrest in January, Rhodes has been represented by Linder and Bright without incident until last week, when Tarpley signed onto the case and claimed that the Texas-based lawyers had become unreachable and had failed to act diligently on Rhodes’ behalf.
Roots has just emerged from his latest political campaign: a bid for the Libertarian Party nomination for the state’s 2nd Congressional District seat. In the June 7 election, he placed 3rd with 526 votes.
“I’ve run in pretty much every election,” Roots said with a laugh Monday. “I’ve yet to win one.”
The website for Roots’ most recent campaign touts a variety of his extreme libertarian positions.
“The tax rate should be zero percent. If the government wants to pay for something, they can launch a GoFundMe,” his site says.
“I think the roads depicted in Mad Max—unpatrolled with wreckage lining the sides—would be just fine,” Roots also wrote. “I will work to abolish all driver license and car registration requirements. Government has no right to know who owns or drives every car. ONLY GOVERNMENT CARS SHOULD HAVE LICENSE PLATES.”
Roots has worked as a lawyer or paralegal for a number of far-right, anti-government clients, including members of the Bundy family charged in a standoff with federal authorities in Nevada.
In 2016, Roots sought to serve as standby counsel for Ryan Bundy, who represented himself in the first criminal case. A judge declined that request, but allowed Bundy to consult in confidence with Roots, who became a volunteer paralegal for Bundy.
A motion filed early Tuesday and linked to Roots cites one of the Bundy cases in a bid to have an outsider take over discovery issues related to the Jan. 6 prosecutions.
Roots also has his own criminal history stretching back into the late 1980s, when he pleaded guilty in Florida to a felony charge of resisting arrest during a traffic stop. Federal authorities in Wyoming later charged him with illegally having a stash of firearms, despite his felony conviction. He ultimately pleaded guilty to possession of an unregistered firearm and was sentenced to 20 months in prison.
Roots also has had at least eight speeding tickets as well as citations for driving on a suspended license, driving an unregistered vehicle and operating without insurance, according to the Rhode Island Supreme Court opinion declining to admit him as an attorney there.
“These various citations, misdemeanors, and felonies that Roots has accumulated over the years present sufficient evidence to warrant, at minimum, a significant delay in acting favorably upon his application for admission to the Rhode Island bar,” the court wrote.
However, the court acknowledged that Roots had an impressive academic record at Roger Williams University, where he got a law degree in 1999.
“We … acknowledge and commend Roots’s award-winning writings, his law-school class rank, his position on the student newspaper, and his service on the Roger Williams University Law Review,” the court wrote.
Despite the rejection in 2000, Rhode Island court records show Roots was admitted to the bar there three years later. A spokesperson for the court system did not respond to a request for comment on why the court deemed him suitable at that time.
Roots’ past also has dogged him in his political campaigns and his academic career.
In 2004, he was fired from a tenure track professorship in sociology at Macon State College in Georgia after working there for just two months, even though he’d disclosed his criminal convictions to the school and it had no ban on employees with a criminal record.
At the time, some who’d been taught by Roots or worked with him said that he appeared to have abandoned the racist views he espoused decades ago.
“We definitely talked about issues in class but he definitely was not saying he was against Jewish people or anything like that,” Macon State student James Coleman told the Macon Telegraph.
Roots also taught sociology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “He taught his own courses and had very good evaluations,” UNLV Professor Fred Preston told the newspaper.
Asked Monday about his background, Roots declined to discuss it, criticized POLITICO’s coverage of the Jan. 6 prosecutions and ended the phone interview.
“You’re going to attack Stewart Rhodes, then you’re going to attack me. All you guys do is support the prosecution. You should be ashamed of yourselves. What the world needs is more anti-government reporters,” he said.
“I’m a libertarian. I want freedom. … I can already see where you’re going. Thanks so much. Thanks,” Roots said, before hanging up.