Anonymous government witness may take center stage at trial of NYC Twitter troll who urged 2016 Hillary supporters to vote ‘by text’
A Brooklyn judge will allow a prominent alt-right internet figure to keep his identity secret when he testifies against a pro-Trump Twitter troll accused of trying to trick 2016 Hillary Clinton voters out of casting a ballot.
Judge Nicholas Garaufis ruled that the witness, who prosecutors say “occupied a prominent position within the online, alt-right community,” will be identified by just a screen name at Douglass Mackey’s trial this month.
Mackey tweeted official-looking fake campaign ads for Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign, urging people to vote by text instead of in person, according to the feds. Jury selection started in Mackey’s trial this week, with opening arguments slated for Monday.
The trial was transferred Sunday from Garaufis to Judge Ann Donnelly, who presided over the sex trafficking trial of disgraced music mogul R. Kelly in 2021.
Mackey’s trial has become a cause célèbre for some conservative personalities, including far-right Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson, who has called the charges a politically-motivated attack on free speech.
Mackey’s lawyer tried to get the case tossed on First Amendment and other grounds in October, but Garaufis ruled that the trial would continue.
The cooperating witness plans to testify about being part of direct-message groups on Twitter, coordinating with Mackey on how to trick Clinton voters out of casting a ballot, according to court documents.
The turncoat troll pleaded guilty to conspiracy against rights — the same charge Mackey faces — and is helping the FBI in several other cases, prosecutors said in recent court filings.
“The fact of the(witness’s) cooperation is sure to be seen by many in that community as a profound betrayal, with the result that, at a minimum, online harassment is bound to follow the (witness) should his or her identity become a matter of public record,” prosecutors wrote last week.
“That harassment can have negative consequences in and of itself. In addition, to claim that intense online attacks do not endanger a person’s physical safety is to ignore the reality of our current world, as evinced in common newspaper headlines.”
Prosecutors noted the irony that their witness has in the past engaged in the same type of harassment they hope anonymity will protect against.
Mackey’s lawyer will learn the witness’ identity and be able to perform a background check, but he can’t reveal the name to his client, and the jury and the public will only hear a screen name, the judge ruled.
Mackey went by the handle “Ricky Vaughn” — a reference to Charlie Sheen’s character in the movie “Major League” — and posted memes in an attempt to suppress the vote for Clinton and get Trump elected, the feds say.
“Avoid the Line. Vote from Home,” Mackey tweeted on Nov. 1 along with a photo of a Black woman standing in front of an “African Americans for Hillary” sign. The fine print read, “Must be 18 or older to vote. One vote per person. Must be a legal citizen of the United States. Voting by text not available in Guam, Puerto Rico, Alaska or Hawaii. Paid for by Hillary for President 2016.”
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He and several other trolls went on group chats to workshop how best to design the meme to convince people it was real, the feds allege. About 4,900 people texted the number in the memes, the feds allege, though it’s not clear if any were tricked into staying home on Election Day.
Mackey’s lawyer, Andrew Frisch, pushed to have the cooperating witness named, arguing that his safety was not at risk, and that witnesses against drug cartels and gangs like MS-13 in the past have not been granted anonymity.
“While safety and effectiveness are legitimate interests, they are not present in this case,” Frisch wrote. “The government’s concern about protecting the defendant from online harassment really means protecting him from negative attention, which is not a legitimate interest.
The prosecution has never alleged that the defendant has a reputation for violence, ever engaged in violence, or even threatened anyone’s safety.
Garaufis disagreed, though, ruling “The court is unpersuaded by the Defendant’s claim that violence is necessarily far afield from that online harassment… The court finds that the Government had made an adequate showing that there is real, non-speculative, concern that revealing the (witness’s) identity could lead to online or physical harassment or danger.”
Garaufis also barred any cross-examination about the witness’s work for the FBI on other cases, over Frisch’s objections.
Opening arguments were briefly delayed when an expert witness from the defense backed out, after Frisch said a researcher with the Southern Poverty Law Center reached out to him asking questions “based on private emails” for a pending investigative piece about Mackey’s trial.