ATLANTA – Georgia Republicans who signed a certificate falsely stating that Donald Trump had won the state in 2020 and that they were the state’s “duly elected and qualified” electors will have to appear before a special grand jury investigating whether the former president and others illegally tried to interfere in the state's election, a judge said Thursday.
Lawyers for 11 of the 16 people who signed that certificate, all of whom have received letters saying they could face criminal charges related to the investigation, had asked the judge to quash their subpoenas. Attorney Holly Pierson said that once her clients were told they were targets of the investigation, rather than witnesses, she advised them they should invoke their rights against self-incrimination and there are no questions she would be comfortable with them answering before the panel.
“We’re asking you on behalf of our clients not to have them frog-marched in front of the cameras into this courtroom,” Pierson said to Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney, who's overseeing the special grand jury.
Lawyers with the Fulton County district attorney's office said they planned to ask questions about topics other than just the selection of an alternate slate of electors, so they shouldn't be excused from appearing just because they won't answer questions on that topic.
McBurney said he would issue a written order soon, but said he would not quash the subpoenas. He suggested that the lawyers for the district attorney's office and the lawyers for those who signed the false certificate should meet before each witness testifies to talk about the topics to be covered and then he could settle any disputes.
McBurney also heard arguments from a lawyer for state Sen. Burt Jones, the Republican nominee for Georgia lieutenant governor, who had asked the judge to remove District Attorney Fani Willis from the investigation. Willis has a conflict of interest because she hosted a fundraiser last month for Jones' Democratic opponent, Charlie Bailey, attorney Bill Dillon argued. He also suggested that the district attorney's office had leaked the fact that Jones, who signed the false electors certificate, was considered a target of the investigation to a reporter and then publicly confirmed that in a court filing to hurt Jones and help Bailey.
Disqualification of a district attorney requires an actual conflict of interest rather than just the appearance of a conflict of interest, and routine political support by an elected district attorney for another candidate from the same party does not meet that bar, said Anna Green Cross, a lawyer for Willis' office.
McBurney said he doesn't disagree that there's an appearance of a conflict: "It’s a ‘What are you thinking?’ moment. The optics are horrible."
But he repeatedly pressed Dillon on whether there was an actual conflict. He said he's not inclined to remove the entire district attorney's office from the investigation and asked Dillon what he would propose. Dillon suggested having state Attorney General Chris Carr appoint another prosecutor to handle any part of the investigation that has to do with Jones.
“Find somebody who doesn’t have a dog in the hunt. Fani Willis has a dog in the hunt,” he said, referring to her known support of Jones's opponent.
The special grand jury, which operates behind closed doors, was seated in May at Willis's request and has the power to subpoena evidence and witnesses. It does not have the power to issue an indictment. Instead, once its investigation is completed, it will issue a report with recommendations. It will then be up to Willis to decide whether to seek an indictment from a regular grand jury.
Dillon raised concerns that Willis could release the special grand jury report in mid-October, right before the November general election, and that could hurt Jones politically.
McBurney clarified that there is no definite timeline for the special grand jury, but he said it would be him and not Willis who would receive and release the report. He said he would ensure that there is a “meaningful time buffer” between the release and the election.
Also Thursday, Willis responded in federal court to an attempt by U.S. Rep. Jody Hice to avoid testifying before the special grand jury. She rejected his arguments and asked that the matter be returned to Fulton County Superior Court “in preparation for Congressman Hice's compliance with his lawfully issued subpoena.”
Hice was one of several GOP lawmakers who attended a December 2020 meeting at the White House in which Trump allies discussed various ways to overturn Joe Biden’s electoral win.
Willis has also said her team is looking into is a Jan. 2, 2021, phone call in which Trump urged Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, to “find” enough votes to overturn his loss; calls that Sen. Lindsey Graham made to Raffensperger; and false claims of election fraud that were made by Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani and others during December 2020 legislative committee hearings at the state Capitol.