Trump RICO case in Atlanta attracts army of defense attorneys

Some lawyers in the politically charged case are donors to Democrats

When Donald Trump’s campaign lawyer John Eastman went looking for legal help to battle criminal charges in Fulton County, he landed on longtime Atlanta defense attorney Wilmer “Buddy” Parker. A former federal prosecutor, Parker has represented his share of high-profile clients, including drug kingpin Edgar Valdez Villarreal who pleaded guilty to federal charges and was sentenced to 49 years in prison.

Parker has also contributed thousands of dollars to Georgia Democrats seeking state and federal office.

Trump and his allies have said repeatedly that his indictment in Fulton County on racketeering charges is — like his other legal problems — a partisan “witch hunt” fostered by Democrats who want to stop his presidential campaign.

But for some of the defense attorneys representing the 19 co-defendants in the case, political persuasion is less of an issue. More than 50 attorneys have signed on to represent individuals charged in the sprawling criminal indictment. They hail from international law firms and boutique practices. Some have an ideological ax to grind.

But around a third of the attorneys representing individuals charged in the sprawling criminal indictment have also been financial supporters of Democrats and left-leaning causes, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis. Several even contributed to Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign that unseated Trump. The number of defense attorneys on the case who have supported Democrats is twice the number of those who have donated to Republicans, the AJC found.

While it’s not unusual for lawyers to represent clients who don’t share their beliefs, the charges at the center of the Fulton County indictment — that the defendants conspired to overturn the results of the 2020 election — have cast a spotlight on the politics of all involved.

‘That’s the way our system works’

Attorneys and law firms typically are large political donors, and they overwhelmingly favor Democratic candidates and causes.

According to the non-partisan campaign finance organization Open Secrets, law firms contributed $310.2 million to candidates for federal office in the 2020 election cycle, and 82% of that went to Democrats.

Parker, the Eastman lawyer, has donated to former Gov. Roy Barnes, gubernatorial candidate Jason Carter, Sen. Jon Ossoff, Senate candidate Michelle Nunn as well as contributions to former president Barack Obama.

And when Trump was indicted in Washington, D.C., on federal election charges earlier this summer, Parker noted how many times Georgia was mentioned in that indictment as an indication of how important the alleged acts in the state were to the conspiracy. Parker referred to the indictment as “another example of Georgia being a focus of criminality at the highest levels.

Parker acknowledged that he has supported Democrats – but also Republicans.

“It depends on what decade you are asking me about,” he said. “I supported, in the Reagan era, a number of Republicans. I was in the Justice Department, and I knew where my bread was buttered.”

But, Republican or Democrat, Parker said that doesn’t matter when he accepts a client.

“The simple truth of the matter is I’m a representative of our system of criminal justice,” he said.

As such, he said he is not required to be reflective of his client’s beliefs.

“That’s the way our system works,” he said.

Marc Hershovitz, an Atlanta attorney who specializes in representing politicians in sticky situations and is not involved in the Trump case, said party politics shouldn’t matter when it comes to selecting a criminal defense attorney.

“Being a good attorney has nothing to do with ideology. Ideology can take a good attorney and make them blind,” he said. “Whether an attorney is a Democrat or a Republican shouldn’t be coloring good, competent legal counsel.”

In fact, having an attorney who doesn’t match your politics can be a plus, he said. It can also be challenging for defendants who see their cases in purely political terms.

“You want a lawyer who is going to give you advice you don’t want to hear,” Hershovitz said. “If you only hire a true believer as an attorney, you may not get the advice that you need. You’d get the advice you want.”

Former Trump campaign attorneys Jenna Ellis and Kenneth Chesebro both hired defense attorneys with a record of supporting Democratic candidates for state and federal office.

Donors to Democrats

Perhaps the most interesting hire is that of Chris Anulewicz by defendant Bob Cheeley. Cheeley is an Alpharetta attorney who presented video clips to state lawmakers in a televised hearing in late 2020 that Cheeley claimed showed election workers double- and triple-counting votes.

Anulewicz is an experienced attorney in complex, white-collar cases. But he also is the husband of Democratic state Rep. Teri Anulewicz. Chris Anulewicz has given donations to both Democrats and Republicans, although he has not contributed to a Republican candidate since 2017.

But in a tweet last year, Anulewicz made his own opinion clear on what he called the GOP “attack on the 2020 election.” Referring to the data breach in Coffee County — which is one of the key parts of the Georgia indictment — Anulewicz said that Trump and state Republican Party Chairman David Shafer “were trying to manufacture evidence.”

Last year, lawyer Chris Anulewicz was  Tweeting that Trump team was trying to manufacture evidence. Today, he is representing one of Trump's alleged co-horts

Credit: Twitter screen grab

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Credit: Twitter screen grab

Ellis is relying on Macon attorneys Laura and Franklin Hogue, who represented Gregory McMichael, one of the men convicted in 2021 of the racially motivated murder of Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick. They also have contributed to numerous Democratic campaigns over the years, sending money to candidates ranging from Democratic members of the General Assembly to Obama and former Georgia Congressman Jim Marshall.

Chesebro pleaded guilty Friday to one felony count of conspiracy to file false documents as part of a plea deal with no jail time in exchange for his possible testimony. Prosecutors painted Chesebro as the architect of a scheme to recruit “alternate” electors for Trump in Georgia and others states. The plea deal sentenced him to five years probation, but with good behavior and first-offender status, his record could be cleared in as little as three years, possibly allowing him to return to his law practice.

It’s an unmitigated win for Chesebro’s attorney, Scott Grubman, a former federal prosecutor who bills himself as the attorney that other lawyers, “and even sitting judges,” go to for “high-stakes criminal and civil matters.”

Justice Department officials cannot give politically, so Grubman’s political contributions did not begin until the 2014 election cycle when he entered private practice. Since then, Grubman has contributed a little more than $8,000, always to Democrats, according to Open Secrets.

In 2020, Grubman gave the maximum allowed contribution — $2,800 — to then-candidate Joe Biden in his race against Trump. That same year, he contributed $1,250 to Blue Horizon, a political action committee organized to elect Georgia Democrats to federal office.

Grubman’s co-counsel, former Fulton County prosecutor Manny Arora, also has a history of contributing to Democrats at the state and federal levels, although not as frequently as Grubman. Arora has represented some high-profile clients including Chicago-based rapper Lil Durk in a 2019 shooting at the Varsity in which Durk, real name Durk Derrick Banks, was charged with attempted murder and several other felonies. Ultimately, prosecutors dropped the charges.

“Regardless of my political beliefs, the rule of law is more important to me,” Arora said.

When Sidney Powell, another attorney who worked with the Trump campaign, appeared in court Thursday to plead guilty to six misdemeanors and agreed to testify against her codefendants, she was accompanied by white-collar defense attorney Brian Rafferty. In a deal brokered with prosecutors, Powell admitted to working with an Atlanta company to illegally access voter information from Coffee County.

Like many of the other defense attorneys, Rafferty is a former prosecutor and was chief of the criminal division for the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia until he went into private practice in 2019. Rafferty doesn’t have a long history of political giving, having spent most of his career in the Justice Department where many employees are prohibited from donating to partisan causes.

In 2022, he gave $318 to a Democratic PAC that supported Sen. Raphael Warnock’s re-election campaign while he was a partner in the Atlanta office of national firm BakerHostetler. Rafferty left BakerHostetler in August to form his own firm when he agreed to defend Powell.

Republican Stalwarts

There are other instances where a defendant’s choice of counsel more closely matches their political leanings. Mark Meadows, Trump’s former White House chief of staff, is represented by Washington, D.C., attorney George Terwilliger, a partner at McGuireWoods and a member of the firm’s white collar and government investigations team. Before private practice, Terwilliger served in the U.S. Department of Justice was a deputy attorney general and acting attorney general under former President George W. Bush.

According to Open Secrets, Terwilliger has donated more than $125,000 to Republican candidates and causes over the past 25 years. In 2016, Terwilliger supporter former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in the Republican presidential primary, donating the maximum to both his candidate committee and an affiliated political action committee.

George Terwilliger (far right) is shown leaving the federal courthouse in Atlanta with his client, former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows (second from left). Terwilliger has contributed to Republican causes and candidates over the years.
Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

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Credit: Miguel Martinez

While politics is lens through which to see the army of defense lawyers representing defendants in the Fulton County case, Parker, who has been practicing law since the 1970s, has another. Clients seek them out because they want a vigorous defense.

Parker said the defining characteristic of the criminal defense lawyers in the case is “we’ve been around for a long time.”

“The defense counsel in this case are not inexperienced,” he said. “We have extensive experience.”

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