Georgia GOP bankrolls lawyers for 'fake' Trump electors in Fulton County DA probe

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The Georgia Republican Party is bankrolling the legal defense of most of the so-called fake electors in the state as part of a controversial arrangement that Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis charges in a new court filing is “rife with serious ethical problems” and “actual conflicts of interest.”

A Yahoo News review of campaign finance filings shows that the Georgia Republican Party paid $35,419 last July to two lawyers who are representing 11 of 16 party operatives and activists who declared themselves on Dec. 14, 2020, “the duly elected and qualified” electors from the state pledged to Donald Trump despite the fact that Joe Biden had won the popular vote there.

Fani Willis
Fani Willis, district attorney of Fulton County, Ga. (Ben Gray/AP)

That move, which was memorialized in a false certificate the electors sent that day to the Senate and the National Archives, has become a central focus of Willis’s probe into Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election. But Willis, an elected Democrat, substantially escalated the legal battle over the issue this week when she moved to disqualify the two lawyers being paid by the state GOP. She argued that their representation of the 11 electors resulted in ethical conflicts given the potentially divergent interests between some of those electors and top party officials, including state party chairman David Shafer, who organized the Dec. 14 meeting and arranged for it to take place behind closed doors at the state Capitol. (The court filing was first reported by CNN.)

David Shafer, chairman of the Georgia Republican Party.
David Shafer, chairman of the Georgia Republican Party. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

A spokesman for the Georgia Republican Party did not respond to a request for comment. One of the lawyers Willis is seeking to disqualify, Holly Pierson, a former federal prosecutor, said in an emailed statement to Yahoo News that claims of any ethical impropriety by her and her co-counsel in the case, Kimberly Debrow, were “false and defamatory.”

“Both the U.S. Supreme Court and the Georgia Supreme Court recognize that there is no actual or potential conflict in representing multiple individuals united in their innocence whose defenses against false allegations of wrongdoing are aligned,” Pierson wrote. She also said she and Debrow have “thoroughly complied with our ethical obligations,” including getting informed-consent waivers from their clients.

The new court filing underscores the political minefield that surrounds Willis’s high-profile probe, which many legal observers say continues to represent the most imminent threat of criminal prosecution for the former president. Willis herself has already been disqualified from participating in one part of her case: an investigation into one of the alternative electors who met at the state Capitol that day, Burt Jones, the current Republican Party candidate for lieutenant governor, because the district attorney previously participated in a fundraiser for Jones’s Democratic opponent, Charles Bailey.

But the filing also highlights an arrangement that Willis has suggested is thwarting her efforts to uncover the truth about the fake elector meeting. With the same two lawyers representing 11 electors, it effectively prevents her prosecutors from reaching cooperation agreements with marginal participants who could then provide testimony that might implicate her top targets, including party chairman Shafer.

An exterior view of the Superior Court building of Fulton County
Fulton County Superior Court. (Megan Varner/Getty Images)

Defense lawyers “should be doing whatever is in the best interest” of their clients and “in the criminal law, sometimes that’s a plea, right? Sometimes I’m going to take this immunity agreement — and I’m going to get you the best deal,” Willis said in an interview with Yahoo News before her Monday filing to disqualify Pierson and Debrow. She emphasized in the interview that she was not talking specifically about the two Georgia defense lawyers. But she added: “You cannot effectively represent — forget 11 — you cannot effectively represent two people doing that. That, to me, puts everything in jeopardy, and it’s a bad idea.”

The potential problem has also been flagged by Robert McBurney, the chief judge in Fulton County Superior Court who will rule on Willis’s motion. After Pierson and Debrow filed their own motions in July to disqualify Willis from the whole investigation (because of her role in the Bailey fundraiser), McBurney denied their claims. And in a little-noticed passage, he appeared to reference the potential conflict issue that has now been raised by Willis, writing that the 11 electors had “divergent roles in post-election activities” and had “fundamentally different postures in the District Attorney’s investigation.”

Clark Cunningham, a professor of law and ethics at Georgia State University, said it was “entirely appropriate” for Willis to file her motion. He noted that Shafer’s role in particular posed a “significant conflict of interest” for the two defense lawyers given that the state party chair “seems to be facing much greater criminal liability [than the others], so it may be very much in the Georgia Republican Party’s interest to make sure none of them cooperate with the DA.”

The so-called fake elector scheme was an integral part of the legal strategy devised by one of Trump’s lawyers, John Eastman, to block Biden from taking office. The idea was to have alternate GOP electors in seven swing states that Biden won declare themselves the real electors in those states, initially as a means of preserving Trump’s ability to overturn the election results in the event that any of his multiple challenges in court were successful.

John Eastman and Rudy Giuliani.
Attorney John Eastman, with Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, speaks against the certification of the 2020 presidential election on Jan. 6, 2021. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

After those challenges repeatedly failed, the fake elector meetings were used by Eastman to argue that Vice President Mike Pence could reject the legitimate Biden electors when Congress was called on to certify the election results on Jan. 6, 2021, because there was a presumed dispute over which set of electors was real.

In their own motions to quash subpoenas issued to their clients, Pierson and Debrow argued in a court filing that the Dec. 14 fake elector meeting was “public and transparent.” To back that up, they noted that Shafer announced the meeting in social media postings and during media interviews that same day, emphasizing that the session was convened only to “preserve” Trump’s rights should his legal challenge to the Georgia results succeed.

But unlike the certificates from two other states where fake elector meetings were held, the Georgia statement to the National Archives and the Senate made no mention of the idea that the declaration by the electors that they were "duly elected and qualified" was contingent on the success of Trump's legal challenges.

In addition, Willis’s prosecutors have gathered substantial evidence that Shafer didn't publicly reveal the Dec. 14 meeting, which was held in Room 216 of the state Capitol, until reporters learned about it that day and threatened to expose it. In his book, “Flipped: How Georgia Turned Purple and Broke the Monopoly on Republican Power,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Greg Bluestein wrote that he was falsely told when he tried to attend that it was an “education meeting.”

George Chidi, an Atlanta-based independent journalist, told Yahoo News that he testified before Willis’s special grand jury investigating the case in July about how he got tipped off to the secret meeting and that when he tried to attend it, he too was told it was an “education meeting” and was thrown out. “A guy got up and walked me out the door,” he said, adding that “they posted a guy out front” to keep others out.

Yahoo News has confirmed that, in a text message before the meeting, Shafer alerted participants: “Tell them to go to Room 216 to avoid drawing attention to what we are doing.”