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Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones agrees to liquidate assets to pay Sandy Hook families

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Alex Jones is one step closer to paying the families who sued him for defamation.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Jones is a talk show host who built his career on spreading conspiracy theories, and he spread one about the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut in 2012 that killed more than two dozen people, mostly children. He claimed the shooting was fake, and he incited people to harass the families of the victims. A court ordered him to pay $1.5 billion in damages, but he first sought bankruptcy protection, and now is moving to resolve the case through Chapter 7 liquidation.

INSKEEP: NPR's Tovia Smith has been following the story. Tovia, good morning.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What does Chapter 7 liquidation mean?

SMITH: Well, it would basically mean that there'd be a fire sale, a controlled, but a swift sale of everything from Jones' ownership in his company called Free Speech Systems to his personal gun collection. And it means the ball could get rolling pretty quickly on at least some payment for those Sandy Hook families who won that defamation suit. But the payment wouldn't be anywhere close to what these families are owed. Jones' assets are estimated now at about $10 million, which might mean just around a couple of hundred thousand dollar for each of the plaintiffs - at least initially.

And I say initially, because a Chapter 7 trustee would have authority to hunt down any assets that Jones may have hidden, and this hunting license, as some call it, would be a forever thing because Jones' case, unlike most bankruptcy cases, where debts are washed away, and you could get a fresh start, the judge ruled in Jones' case, that can't happen because his wrongdoing was intentional and malicious. So bottom line, the families will have a claim on Jones' future earnings for the rest of his life.

INSKEEP: Wow. So he gives up $10 million, a tiny fraction of what he owes, and then this would pursue him forever. Why would Jones view that as a good option?

SMITH: Well, his attorneys say in court papers that there's no hope of settlement or reorganization, and Chapter 7 liquidation would be simpler and cheaper and in everyone's interest. It is curious, though, given that Jones has been pretty obstructive and intransigent since these defamation lawsuits were filed. And I'll say he was especially erratic on Infowars show just last weekend, alternating between really angry defiance, screaming, swearing, and vowing to fight. And on the other hand, total despair, literally, sobbing about losing his show and his company, which he called his baby.

INSKEEP: You know, you note that he's still on the air. He's still doing his show. Would this actually shut down his media empire if they go through with the Chapter 7?

SMITH: Yes, but with a caveat. And this is important as a lot of the families who sued made it very clear that stopping Jones' conspiracy-mongering is more important than any financial windfall. So, yes, liquidation would spell the end of his control of his company, but it would not stop him from reincarnating into a new company that does the same kind of thing. And ironically, I'll add that would mean that the more Jones spews his bogus conspiracy theories, and the more money he makes, the more money the families could get paid.

INSKEEP: OK, although I suppose he continues to have freedom of speech and freedom to defame people and then freedom to be responsible for the defamation.

SMITH: To get sued again. Yeah.

INSKEEP: Yeah, exactly. So when is the judge expected to rule on this request?

SMITH: The bankruptcy judge will decide next Friday whether Chapter 7 is the way to go here. And meantime, Jones is appealing the defamation cases and the ruling that families can keep chasing him for the rest of his life.

INSKEEP: NPR's Tovia Smith. Thanks so much.

SMITH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.