One lawyer's rise shows how vaccine misinformation can fuel fundraising and far-right celebrity

·19 min read

In one of dozens of recent media appearances, Ohio attorney Thomas Renz was claiming that coronavirus vaccines were more harmful than the virus itself. "The people that are dying are vaccinated," he said on a conservative online talk show in July.

As Renz spoke, a message flashed across the screen with his website address. "Donate to his cause," it urged.

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Renz, who became a licensed attorney only months before the pandemic began, has rapidly gained prominence among covid-19 skeptics for leading federal lawsuits in six states that challenge shutdowns, mask mandates and the safety of vaccines while alleging that the danger of the virus has been overblown.

Anti-vaccine groups, conspiracy theory enthusiasts and far-right media have embraced him, and his best-known client, the group America's Frontline Doctors, calls him part of a "Legal Eagle Dream Team."

It is a highly visible role for Renz, 44, who passed the Ohio bar exam in November 2019 on his fifth attempt and has limited litigation experience, according to a Washington Post examination of his career.

Before becoming a lawyer, he worked an array of jobs, including at a nonprofit that told The Washington Post it terminated him and at a rural credit union. Two female employees at the credit union accused him of repeatedly making sexually suggestive comments at work and one alleged he touched her breast in 2014, according to letters the women wrote to the credit union's chief executive that were obtained by The Post.

Renz said in a brief interview at a recent speaking event near St. Louis that the previously unreported allegations from the credit union employees were "flatly untrue" but declined to discuss them in detail, citing nondisclosure agreements.

Renz's quick public ascent illustrates how promoting misinformation about the pandemic can be an effective fundraising tool and lead to renown within the portion of the country that remains suspicious of coronavirus vaccines, despite their general acceptance by the medical and scientific communities. The legal challenges are similar to the courtroom wrangling that followed the presidential election, when groups supporting former president Donald Trump raised money and made headlines by filing lawsuits - or promising to file them - based on dubious claims of widespread election fraud.

In recent months, Renz secured his own online talk show and has joined associates of Trump such as former national security adviser and retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell and veteran political operative Roger Stone on a national speaking tour titled "ReAwaken America." He has made more than 100 appearances on conservative media outlets over the past year, a Post review found, including on One America News, Newsmax and Infowars.

Renz also launched a nonprofit group called For God Family Country that is collecting donations for the "medical freedom fight," according to the website of Renz's law firm. Renz ally Pamela Popper, the leader of an activist group called Make Americans Free Again, has said she aims to raise $100 million to support his lawsuits.

Renz wrote in an email to The Post that his law firm had been paid "around $250,000" so far for coronavirus litigation, which he said occupied most of his time over the past year. "I am certainly not making much off of this," he added.

In response to an interview request for this story, Renz initially proposed a contract with The Post that would set conditions for the story's content and restrict whom reporters could contact. Also under Renz's proposal, all requests for information were to be submitted to him in writing. The Post does not enter into such agreements.

A reporter subsequently approached Renz at the event in Hazelwood, Mo., about 18 miles northwest of St. Louis, where he answered several questions and asked to have others sent to him by email. He later emailed responses to some of the additional questions.

Renz told The Post he regards himself as a "reluctant leader" in a global movement to stop coronavirus vaccines. Many in that movement have latched onto a claim Renz first made in July that, according to a purported whistleblower he has not publicly identified, coronavirus vaccines caused the deaths of 45,000 people. Flynn has cited the claim in Telegram posts that have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times.

The allegation is at odds with clinical trials and studies that have found the vaccines are safe and effective, and also with a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statement that a review of medical data "has not established a causal link" between the vaccines and deaths.

In his public statements, Renz has gone far beyond the allegations in his lawsuits, claiming without evidence that government officials and pharmaceutical companies are "murdering people" and covering it up.

Renz defended that language in his email to The Post. "If you know there are safe and effective treatments and actively work to cover them up to promote sales of an untested injection that is only able to be categorized as a vaccine after the definition of the word 'vaccine' is changed, then it is my personal belief that what is happening is akin to murder," he wrote.

All but two of the eight coronavirus-related federal lawsuits Renz has filed are in their early stages. The exceptions are a suit against a hospital system in Michigan that was withdrawn on Sept. 10, days after it was filed, and one against Ohio officials that was withdrawn in March after a judge said it was nearly "incomprehensible."

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A native of the small town of Oak Harbor in northern Ohio, Renz spent parts of his 20s working at his family's small businesses: a six-lane bowling alley on a rural state highway and an electronics shop, according to local news stories.

Jesse Riley, who played bluegrass shows at the bowling alley for several years, said Renz worked hard to keep the venue going. "He would sometimes be flipping the burgers, pouring the beers and setting up the pins," said Riley.

By 30, Renz was unemployed and he and his wife were saddled with about $148,000 in personal debts spread across banks, student loans and car payments, according to an April 2007 bankruptcy filing.

A few months later, Renz struck out on a new path, starting law school at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

Biographical information posted on his law firm's website and the website LinkedIn cites career accomplishments. The Post found that several traced to Renz's time as a law student.

On his LinkedIn profile, for example, he cites his work "completing the final edit of the trial transcript for the 'Chemical Ali' case after the Iraq war." Ali Hassan Majeed, an aide to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein known as "Chemical Ali," was convicted of genocide by an Iraqi tribunal in 2007.

Michael Scharf, a law professor at Case Western Reserve when Renz attended and now dean of the school, said Renz and other students helped "clean up the text" of translated Iraqi court documents the law school had acquired and posted on a blog about the trial, a resource for legal scholars studying the case. Renz did not respond to a question about his work on the transcript.

After law school, Renz struggled to kick-start his legal career. In July 2011, more than a year after he got his law degree, he registered to take the Ohio bar exam. It was the first of seven times he registered in eight years, according to information provided by the Supreme Court of Ohio. Renz failed four times and withdrew or did not show up twice, records show. Renz did not respond to questions about the exam.

In the meantime, he went to work in his hometown as president of a small credit union, Commodore Perry Federal Credit Union, starting in 2011, according to an article in a trade publication.

Two female employees later alleged that he frequently invited them into his office and made comments of a sexual nature that left them uncomfortable. The Post does not typically identify victims of alleged sexual harassment without their consent.

"Tom has created a work environment that is unacceptable," one of the women wrote to the credit union's chief executive in July 2015. The employee alleged that the conduct had gotten more aggressive over the previous year. She confirmed in a brief phone interview with The Post that the letter was authentic but declined to comment.

The employee wrote in her letter that on more than one occasion, Renz asked her to "forget to lock the door" to a private room where she pumped breast milk so he could watch. He "often asks 'are those things bigger today' referring to my breasts," she wrote. In late 2014, she alleged, Renz began massaging her neck against her wishes in his office and "slipped his hand down the front of my upper breast, and commented 'oops.'"

A male employee also wrote to the CEO, confirming that the female colleague had contemporaneously told him about Renz's alleged comments and conduct, including the allegation of touching her breast.

A second woman wrote to the CEO alleging that Renz made sexually suggestive comments to her and joked about masturbation. "It makes it very uncomfortable to be alone in his office discussing business," she wrote. In a text message to The Post, the woman declined to comment.

Renz's tenure at the credit union ended a month after the letters were passed to the organization's board of directors, board minutes show.

"Tom overall accepted dismissal," the Aug. 25, 2015, minutes state, without elaboration.

During the brief interview in Hazelwood, Renz said he would describe himself as "a God and family man."

He also disputed the allegations from his former colleagues. "Obviously, I deny that. It is flatly untrue," Renz said.

Asked why he left the credit union, Renz said: "I did resign. I left for other reasons," declining to provide details.

In a subsequent email, Renz said: "I simply am unable to comment on some of the questions you asked as I am subject to NDAs," or nondisclosure agreements.

The credit union's CEO, Mike Barr, declined to comment, as did the board members.

After leaving the credit union, Renz worked briefly at ACT for America, a Washington nonprofit that says it aims to preserve "America's culture," in part by stopping a "radical Islamic cultural invasion," according to its website. Renz's LinkedIn profile does not name the group but states that he was responsible for the "complete restructuring of the largest grassroots national security political organization in the US," echoing ACT's description of itself.

ACT's chief operating officer, Greg Allen, told The Post in an email that Renz worked there for less than a year in 2016 and was terminated. Allen said Renz's description of his work was inaccurate. Allen did not offer details or respond to further questions.

Renz did not address questions from The Post about his LinkedIn profile, his work at ACT or his departure.

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Renz passed the Ohio bar exam in November 2019 and quickly launched his own law practice, using a mailbox at a local UPS store as its contact address.

A search by The Post of criminal and civil cases in Ohio courts surfaced only two in which Renz is listed as an attorney: defending one man charged in July 2020 with DUI and another charged in June with aggravated menacing. Many attorneys work on matters not handled in court, and some court cases in Ohio, such as prosecutions of juveniles, are not public.

Asked about his litigation experience and his role challenging coronavirus vaccines, Renz said in an email: "I sincerely wish that the big firms would step up but they have not so it is left to nobodies like me."

In September 2020, Renz filed a federal lawsuit against Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, R, seeking to reverse indoor mask mandates and other emergency measures. Renz alleged in a news release that the government response to the pandemic amounted to "the greatest fraud ever perpetrated on the American public."

Renz's brother, one of eight plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said in a court filing that the state's lockdown prevented his family from reopening its bowling alley.

The suit was funded by anti-vaccine activists who formed a group called Ohio Stands Up!, according to the news release. A fundraising campaign by the group to pay Renz's legal bills has collected more than $147,000 from almost 2,000 people, according to its webpage. The group said on Facebook in October that Renz was charging $300 per hour for his work - which it described as a reduced rate - and urged supporters to continue donating.

Attached to the Ohio lawsuit was an 18-page report on the pandemic by Popper, an Ohio-based vaccine skeptic who was billed as an "expert." The Make Americans Free Again leader has since become an integral figure in Renz's legal and fundraising campaigns.

Popper, 64, also runs an alternative health program in Worthington, Ohio. Her clinic sells nutritional products and training programs priced at up to $5,435.

In a book about covid-19 published in April, Popper claimed that the pandemic was a hoax inflicted on the public by elite "enemies of the people."

"It was a planned and carefully orchestrated event . . . that allowed some bad actors to gain control over billions of people, and to shut down the world's economies," Popper wrote.

Popper did not respond to emails and phone messages left at her office seeking an interview.

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Last year, Renz and Popper began publicly soliciting money through multiple entities to launch lawsuits in other states. Renz has used appearances on conservative media outlets to ask audiences for support. "Feel free to send us money, that's always great," he said in one July interview.

During an August conference call the group posted to its website, Popper told fellow activists that she had raised more than $250,000 for the legal effort and aimed to raise $100 million to $200 million.

The group MAFA is not incorporated in Ohio or registered with the IRS as a nonprofit, and legal language on its website states that it is part of Popper's health business. The site urges visitors to support MAFA by buying products or memberships from Popper's program.

The Post found that donations to MAFA from its website are directed to a PayPal account in the name of PB Industries, a for-profit Ohio company that Popper formed with her husband.

Renz and Popper also are members of the team behind For God Family Country (4GFC), the nonprofit that Renz formed in August 2018, according to the group's website and Ohio state incorporation records.

Renz's organization promotes charity and Christianity, and its website encourages "treating others as you would want to be treated," being "kind and respectful" and "being decent to people and helping them."

The site also is a donor destination, with the website of Renz's law firm directing people to 4GFC's website and asking for support to fund litigation in the "Medical Freedom Fight."

Records filed to Ohio's attorney general show that 4GFC reported revenue of just $730 in its first two years. It is not clear how much Renz's group may have raised in 2020 or 2021. The group's nonprofit status was revoked by the IRS in May because it hadn't filed financial paperwork to federal officials for three years, IRS records show.

Renz did not respond to a question about how much 4GFC had raised but said none of that money had yet been spent. "We intend to do as much good with this as possible but have not yet settled on how," he said in his email.

Popper has told fellow activists that she and Renz are working to finance a wide-ranging legal assault on coronavirus restrictions.

"That's been our strategy from the get-go, file more and more and more lawsuits - file them everywhere, file different types of lawsuits," Popper said during a recent conference call.

The strategy got off to a bumpy start.

Renz withdrew his first federal lawsuit in March after U.S. District Judge James G. Carr of the northern District of Ohio called the suit an almost "incomprehensible" jumble of dubiously sourced material and asked the plaintiffs why he should not dismiss it.

"It's simply not my job to try to discern from plaintiffs' scattered, off-loaded stack of contentions and claims to envision what sort of plausible legal edifice a capable legal architect might erect," Carr wrote.

Renz told The Post: "With all due respect to Judge Carr, we disagree with his assessment."

Renz filed two more federal coronavirus related lawsuits in Ohio, along with similar suits in federal courts in New Mexico, Maine, Kentucky, Michigan and Alabama. Renz has teamed with in-state lawyers to sue a hospital system and federal, state and local authorities on behalf of residents over restrictions aimed at halting the pandemic.

One of Renz's co-counsels was filmed on the steps of the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 riot. Another has called the government's pandemic response a psychological operation aimed at weakening resistance to tyranny, while a third said during last year's protests against police that rioters should be "mowed down" with machine guns. They all either declined to comment or did not respond to messages.

Across his lawsuits, Renz has alleged that the government measures are unconstitutional. He argues that the coronavirus restrictions amounted, in some cases, to unlawful imprisonment of the public and theft of profits because of business closures. The suits generally deny or play down the severity of the pandemic. In one case, Renz demanded a trial without any coronavirus precautions in case they would bias a jury.

Several court filings from Renz and his co-counsels contain language that appears to echo or duplicate wording from other sources without attribution, a Post review found.

Renz's first two federal lawsuits contained language that exactly matches part of an annotated Constitution published by the Congressional Research Service. Parts of his complaint in New Mexico were identical to a 2016 Yale Law Journal article and a 2014 journal article by a political scientist. And a 222-word passage in Renz's complaint in Maine matches almost verbatim a section of a September 2020 opinion by a federal judge in Pennsylvania.

Asked about the passages, Renz said in his email: "We do our very best to cite everything properly but I do not have a huge team of attorneys and paralegals on this."

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Renz frequently stresses his humble roots while also embracing his newfound role in the international anti-vaccination movement.

He previously viewed anti-vaccine activists as "nuts," but he has come to embrace their beliefs over the past year, he said during a recent podcast interview.

"I've been elevated to a position I probably don't deserve as a leader in this globally, and it's because I've been willing to fight," he told an interviewer in August.

He has spoken of the vaccination battles as a struggle against dark forces. "I'm a Christian, and I believe very strongly in my faith. I believe this is a fight for good and evil," he said in another podcast interview in August.

A breakout moment was his announcement at a July conservative rally in Anaheim, Calif., that he had found a whistleblower with evidence that the coronavirus vaccine caused at least 45,000 deaths.

Declining to publicly identify the purported whistleblower out of fear for her safety, Renz filed affidavits featuring her allegations in support of his lawsuits in Alabama and Michigan. A brief filed in the Michigan case described her as a federal employee.

The witness, whose affidavit says she is a computer programmer, cited figures from a government database known as the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) of unverified reports of possible bad reactions to vaccinations, and claimed without presenting evidence that the "true number of vaccine-related deaths" was actually five times higher. The document does not explain the methodology behind the calculation.

Anyone can submit a report to VAERS, which the CDC warns may contain errors. Health-care workers are required to report deaths of people following vaccinations to the database even when it's unclear whether the vaccine was a cause, according to federal rules.

Recent studies have shown that the coronavirus vaccines are working and rarely have serious side effects. A study published last month and led by researchers at Indiana University and the RAND Corporation found coronavirus vaccines had prevented some 140,000 deaths by May of this year. A large peer-reviewed study published last month of nearly 2 million people in Israel concluded that adverse side effects from the Pfizer vaccine were rare and mild.

"I have other reports from other whistleblowers that have shared information but are unwilling to make it public regarding the danger of the vaccines and cover-up occurring," Renz told The Post.

Renz brought the Alabama suit on behalf of America's Frontline Doctors, a conservative-backed campaign group that has fought government efforts to contain the pandemic.

California-based physician Simone Gold and several other covid-skeptic doctors formed the group last year. In January, Gold was arrested and charged by federal prosecutors with entering a restricted building, violent entry and disorderly conduct after she was photographed inside the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 riots. She has pleaded not guilty. A spokesman for Gold's group said the charges are "irrelevant" to the group's lawsuit.

Renz has been paid by America's Frontline Doctors "at a fair rate for nonprofit legal advice," a spokesman for the group said in an email, adding that they contacted him after noticing his earlier work on related to issues tied to the coronavirus response.

Despite mainstream social networks having taken the 45,000-deaths allegation offline, clips of Renz speaking at Anaheim have been viewed tens of thousands of times on alternative online video platforms.

In interviews, Renz described leaders enforcing coronavirus regulations as "scumbags" and likened vaccine mandates to the authoritarianism of apartheid-era South Africa and Nazi Germany.

Even prosecuting top public health officials would not be enough to repair the damage they have done, Renz claims.

"Let's say there are crimes against humanity cases, like Nuremberg, and we make all the people pay and go to jail," he told the conspiracy theory promoter Sean Turnbull on the podcast SGT Report. "Well, guess what? That still isn't going to bring back your loved ones."

He has promised his supporters more legal action, declaring in one recent interview that "the suits are never going to stop" and that he was lining up his next targets.

"As God is my witness," he said in Anaheim, "hell will freeze over before I stand down on this."

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