AJC subpoena shows grand jury’s interest in U.S. attorney tumult

Paper releasing full audio of leaked conference call
Then- U.S. Attorney for Northern District of Georgia BJay Pak speaks during a press conference on the seizure of a mammoth quantity of 170 kilograms of heroin, multi-kilogram quantities of cocaine, multi-pound quantities of marijuana, over $1.5 “mil” in cash and 40 plus firearms on Wednesday, August 11, 2020 in Atlanta.   Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Then- U.S. Attorney for Northern District of Georgia BJay Pak speaks during a press conference on the seizure of a mammoth quantity of 170 kilograms of heroin, multi-kilogram quantities of cocaine, multi-pound quantities of marijuana, over $1.5 “mil” in cash and 40 plus firearms on Wednesday, August 11, 2020 in Atlanta. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

A recent subpoena sent to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution underscores a Fulton County grand jury’s interest in the abrupt resignation of former U.S. Attorney Byung J. “BJay” Pak as then-President Donald Trump contested Georgia’s election results.

The 23-person Fulton County special grand jury, which is tasked with examining potential criminal interference in the state’s 2020 elections, is seeking the full audio recording of a conference call among staff of the local U.S. attorney’s office on Jan. 11, 2021.

The AJC obtained a copy of the recording and reported on it the next day, publishing only relevant quotes from the call on its website.

Bobby Christine, acting U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, led the meeting. Just days into the role, he aimed to reassure colleagues rattled by the Pak’s unexpected resignation. Christine also informed the staff that he had dismissed two election fraud cases filed by supporters of Trump due to lack of evidence.

“I believe, as many of the people around the table believed, there’s just nothing to them,” Christine said during the call.

AJC Editor Kevin Riley said a copy of the recording, which is available below in its entirety, will be provided to prosecutors through the newspaper’s lawyers in response to the subpoena.

“A careful review found there was nothing on the recording that would reveal a confidential source or private information. We saw value in making the full contents of the recording public on our website. We are not providing any unpublished information and see no journalistic harm in providing a copy of the recording to prosecutors,” Riley said.

“We are cautious in our approach to subpoenas related to our news gathering, because of the need to remain independent in any legal proceeding,” Riley said. “The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and most major news organizations object to subpoenas seeking testimony or unpublished newsroom records. The law in Georgia and most states recognizes a ‘reporter’s privilege’ to keep news gathering material confidential.”

This was a different situation, Riley said, since the AJC covered the conference call between Christine and his staff in detail in January 2021.

Christine was tapped to be top prosecutor for the Northern District of Georgia shortly after Pak resigned on Jan. 4, 2021.

Pak later told a congressional committee that he wrote his resignation letter after a late-night phone call with Richard Donoghue, then the acting deputy U.S. attorney general. He said Donoghue told him that Trump believed Pak wasn’t being aggressive enough in investigating voter fraud cases and that he was a “Never Trumper.”

Christine’s appointment raised fears of political interference since the Trump administration bypassed the office’s second-in-command, who typically takes over when a U.S. attorney leaves.

During the call, Christine was asked repeatedly why he was picked instead of First Assistant U.S. Attorney Kurt Erskine.

“Many of us have been through multiple administrations, and almost always the (first assistant U.S. attorney) takes over,” one lawyer on the call said.

“I don’t think that’s a question I’m going to get into,” Christine said. “I appreciate you asking it; I empathize for why you would ask it, but I’m not going to get into that.”

During the call, Christine told federal attorneys that he didn’t want to “break anything.”

Before his appointment to the northern district, Christine had been the top prosecutor in Georgia’s southern district since 2017. He retained both positions until President Joe Biden was sworn in.

Christine is now district attorney for Columbia County, Ga., outside of Augusta. His office did not respond to requests for comment.

United States Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia Bobby Christine speaks during a Public Safety Committee joint meeting at the Georgia State Capitol building in Atlanta on Monday, January 27, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)


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‘Nothing irregular happened’

From the beginning of the Fulton criminal investigation, launched in February 2021, District Attorney Fani Willis has made clear that she’s interested in the circumstances surrounding Pak’s resignation.

Pak testified publicly last month before the select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

In relatively brief remarks, the former Republican state legislator said that in late 2020 he followed the orders of then-Attorney General Bill Bar to investigate allegations of fraud after Georgia’s 2020 election — including claims made by Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, about election workers at Atlanta’s State Farm Arena pulling fraudulent ballots from a suitcase. Pak said he found no merit to any of the allegations.

“The FBI interviewed the individuals that are depicted in the videos — reportedly they were double- (and) triple-counting ballots — and determined that nothing irregular happened in the counting and the allegations made by Mr. Giuliani were false,” Pak said.

Pak told the AJC Wednesday that he spoke with Fulton prosecutors and investigators at their request earlier this spring but that he has not been subpoenaed by the grand jury.

Securing the testimony of Pak — or Christine — for a state-level investigation could be a tough lift for prosecutors.

They would need to secure the permission of the Justice Department to interview both, an often byzantine process known as a Touhy request.

Witnesses Al Schmidt, former city commissioner of Philadelphia, BJay Pak, former U.S. attorney for the District of Georgia, and Benjamin Ginsburg, an election attorney, are sworn in on Monday, June 13, 2022, to testify before a House Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, D.C. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Credit: TNS

Multiple targets contacted

The grand jury is homing in on what’s been described in recent subpoenas as a “multi-state, coordinated plan by the Trump Campaign to influence the results of the November 2020 election in Georgia and elsewhere.”

The special grand jury recently issued subpoenas for Giuliani and a half-dozen other close allies to Trump, including U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. Lawyers retained by Graham filed a motion to quash his subpoena in a South Carolina federal court on Wednesday. A hearing has been scheduled for July 20.

In an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution late last week, Willis indicated she’s open to subpoenaing others who worked in the White House, including Trump and his former chief of staff, Mark Meadows.

“I think it would be safe to say that if people have information in particular about Georgia and interference in the Georgia elections, and they were in the White House, that will not bar us from wanting to talk to them,” Willis said.

Willis said her team has informed multiple people that they are the target of her investigation, but she declined to identify those people.

Graham’s lawyers said they were told the senator was not a target.

Willis said she’s hoping to wrap up the grand jury portion of the investigation by the end of the year — and maybe even make a decision by then on whether to charge anyone with a crime.

The special grand jury can’t issue indictments, but at the end of its service will author a report recommending whether Willis should press charges against Trump or anyone else. The final decision on whether to indict ultimately rests with the DA.