Special counsel to represent secretary of state’s office in Trump probe

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis at the Fulton County Courthouse in downtown Atlanta on Feb. 18, 2021. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis at the Fulton County Courthouse in downtown Atlanta on Feb. 18, 2021. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Appointment comes as tensions escalate between Brad Raffensperger and Fulton district attorney

Gov. Brian Kemp appointed a special counsel this week to represent the secretary of state as Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis continues her criminal investigation into former President Donald Trump and his dealings with Georgia officials following the 2020 elections.

The Republican governor quietly signed an executive order on Wednesday tapping Jack Sharman, a partner at the Birmingham, Alabama-based law firm Lightfoot, Franklin & White.

The document provided few other details but noted that Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr declined to represent the secretary of state in the matter. A Carr spokeswoman said that while the AG typically represents the secretary’s office as a whole, it doesn’t counsel individual state staffers who are involved in criminal proceedings.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger is at the center of Willis’ probe, which was launched in February and is still in its information-gathering phase. The DA’s office is focusing on the Jan. 2 phone call Trump placed to Raffensperger, in which he urged his fellow Republican to “find” the votes to reverse Joe Biden’s win in Georgia.

ExploreFulton DA’s investigation into Trump heads to grand jury

Prosecutors are also examining “potential violations of Georgia law prohibiting the solicitation of election fraud, the making of false statements to state and local governmental bodies, conspiracy, racketeering, violation of oath of office and any involvement in violence or threats related to the election’s administration,” Willis previously wrote.

The DA wrote to Raffensperger, Kemp, Carr and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan in February, urging them to preserve any related documents. And the officials indicated they would cooperate.

But in recent weeks, tensions have escalated between the Fulton DA and the secretary of state’s office.

Investigators have grown so frustrated that they’re considering whether to issue subpoenas to force the secretary of state’s office to share more information, CNN recently reported, citing an anonymous source. Prosecutors began appearing before a grand jury last month.

“We are perfectly willing to cooperate with reasonable requests regarding their investigation,” Ryan Germany, general counsel for the secretary of state’s office, said he told the DA’s office.

But Germany said he is beginning to reconsider.

“The fact that the DA’s office is using anonymous sources to misrepresent our conversations to the media is wildly unprofessional, and is making me rethink whether we should cooperate with them,” Germany said in a statement last week.

He added he had previously “requested time to get an attorney lined up” to represent the secretary of state’s office “to make sure those interactions are efficient and not disruptive.” And he said the DA’s office signed off on it.

ExploreFulton DA’s comfort with racketeering law could influence Trump probe

A source within the DA’s office acknowledged “some frustration” with the secretary of state’s office. “For us, it’s mostly ‘let’s get this show on the road,’” said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

As for Sharman, the source said Thursday that “it’s odd that (the state is) lawyering up.” For now, prosecutors are viewing the special counsel as a “point of contact,” although so far there has been no contact with Sharman.

Willis declined to comment for this article.

Sharman, who specializes in white-collar criminal defense, was previously a special counsel to the U.S. House Financial Services Committee during the Whitewater investigation involving President Bill Clinton. More recently he served as a special counsel in the Alabama House during the impeachment probe of then-Gov. Robert Bentley.

Ari Schaffer, a spokesperson for the Georgia secretary of state, said Sharman “will provide excellent counsel to our office.”

“We believe that having counsel experienced in these issues representing us in this matter will help ensure that the DA’s office is able to get the information they need for their investigation efficiently and with the least amount of disruption to our employees,” he said.

Sharman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A Kemp spokesman said it’s common procedure for the governor to appoint a special counsel when the attorney general recuses himself from a case.

ExploreNew Fulton DA balances Trump probe, massive local workload

Willis, a veteran prosecutor who was sworn in on Jan. 1, said in February that her office was best suited to handle the Trump investigation since all other relevant state investigative agencies, including the secretary of state and AG’s offices, had conflicts. Carr was a party to a separate phone call with Trump on Dec. 8 in which the then-president warned him not to rally other GOP officials against a Texas lawsuit that sought to throw out Georgia’s election results, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution previously reported.

The Fulton DA’s office “is the one agency with jurisdiction that is not a witness to the conduct that is the subject of the investigation,” Willis said at the time.

STORY SO FAR:

Newly elected Fulton County DA Fani Willis announced in February she was investigating alleged election fraud by former President Donald Trump and some of his closest allies. The probe centers on a Jan. 2 phone call to Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in which Trump pleaded with him to “find” enough votes to overturn his narrow defeat in the state.

In a letter to top state officials, Willis said her office “is the one agency with jurisdiction that is not a witness to the conduct that is the subject of the investigation.” She indicated she’s investigating several state crimes, including solicitation of election fraud, making false statements to state and local governmental bodies, conspiracy, racketeering, violation of oath of office and involvement in violence or threats related to the election’s administration.

In March, prosecutors appeared before a Fulton grand jury seeking subpoenas for documents and witnesses pertaining to their investigation. Willis has said she is in “no rush,” but friction with Raffensperger’s office indicates the probe is moving forward at a steady pace.

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