Fulton prosecutors float plea deals to Trump defendants

First guilty plea in RICO case came Friday
Atlanta DA Fani Willis gives a speech and talk to the press after the indictment of former President Trump and 18 others at Fulton County Courthouse on Monday, August 14, 2023 in Atlanta. (Michael Blackshire/Michael.blackshire@ajc.com)

Credit: Michael Blackshire

Credit: Michael Blackshire

Atlanta DA Fani Willis gives a speech and talk to the press after the indictment of former President Trump and 18 others at Fulton County Courthouse on Monday, August 14, 2023 in Atlanta. (Michael Blackshire/Michael.blackshire@ajc.com)

Fulton County prosecutors are floating plea deals to a number of defendants in the election interference case involving former President Donald Trump, according to people with knowledge of the proposals.

At least a handful of the now 18 defendants have received offers from the District Attorney’s office — or prosecutors have touched base with their attorneys to gauge their general interest in striking a deal for a reduced charge in exchange for their cooperation, according to the legal sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive ongoing negotiations.

It’s common for prosecutors to float plea deals to lower-level defendants in large racketeering cases as they home in on their biggest targets. Trump and his former personal attorney Rudy Giuliani face the most charges in the 41-count indictment, which centers on efforts to overturn the results of Georgia’s 2020 presidential election.

Late last week, Atlanta bail bondsman Scott Hall became the first defendant to accept a deal, pleading guilty to five misdemeanor counts in exchange for his testimony.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has learned that Fulton prosecutors have also offered a deal to Michael Roman, who worked as director of Election Day operations for the Trump campaign in 2020. A member of Roman’s legal team told The AJC they rejected the DA’s proposal and that no agreement has been reached.

”We’re maintaining our client’s innocence,” the legal team member said.

People who were indicted for their alleged roles in the appointment of a slate of Trump electors, election data breach in Coffee County and harassment of Fulton poll worker Ruby Freeman have also been approached by prosecutors, according to multiple sources. In the case of at least two of those defendants, no concrete offer has been made.

“It’s kind of a dance,” said John Banzhaf, a professor of public interest law at George Washington University who is closely tracking the case.

“Basically, the first person who flips always gets the best deal. The next one who comes along probably will get a deal that’s almost as good,” he said. “But at a certain point the addition of an extra person… is less important (to prosecutors)… so they’re not going to get as good a deal.”

A spokesman for DA Fani Willis declined to comment. It’s unclear how many defendants have tentatively accepted prosecutors’ offers. The AJC reached out to lawyers for each of the 18 remaining defendants for this story.

The action comes as the election case enters a new, fast-moving phase. Jury selection for the first trial involving two of the defendants, Sidney Powell and Kenneth Chesebro, is slated to begin on Oct. 20.

Special prosecutor Nathan Wade said late last week that his team planned to offer plea deals in the near future to Chesebro and Powell, who requested speedy trials.

“We’ll sit down and kind of put some things together, and we’ll reach out to defense counsel individually to extend an offer,” Wade told Fulton Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee on Friday.

It’s not clear if those proposals have since been made, and attorneys for Powell and Chesebro did not respond to requests for comment.

The public got their first glimpse of the behind-the-scenes maneuvering on Friday at a hastily assembled hearing in McAfee’s courtroom. Standing with his lawyer, Hall, a Trump supporter who was at the Coffee County elections office on Jan. 7, 2021 when sensitive election software was copied, pleaded guilty to five misdemeanor counts of conspiracy to commit intentional interference with the performance of election duties. In exchange he received no jail time and five years of probation. He agreed to testify when needed.

Scott Hall, (left) along with his attorney Jeff Weiner, appears before Judge Scott McAfee on Friday, September 29, 2023 to plead guilty to charges related to his indictment in Fulton County.

Credit: Screenshot from Fulton County Superio

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Credit: Screenshot from Fulton County Superio

Several attorneys interviewed for this story said they have been offered agreements similar to what Hall accepted. In Roman’s case, a member of his legal team said they opted to negotiate for a full dismissal of charges in exchange for his truthful testimony.

Hall’s deal appears to be the first step in a pattern that Willis has followed in past blockbuster racketeering cases involving test cheating at Atlanta Public Schools and the alleged street gang Young Slime Life. In those cases, the DA secured charges against a large number of defendants, only to whittle down the field to a smaller group for trial. (In the APS case, 35 educators were indicted and 12 went to trial. In YSL, 28 people were charged and seven currently remain as jury selection continues.)

Banzhaf said there are generally two main factors that impact who gets offered generous plea agreements.

“One is how early (defendants) come in and the other is how important are they,” he said. “Obviously Rudy Giuliani is much more useful than, say, one of these electors.”

Banzhaf said Hall’s plea deal may encourage other lower-level defendants to flip, particularly those who aren’t personally wealthy, who have careers they want to maintain or who are older and don’t want face the possibility of spending any of their golden years in prison.

“They’re going to say, ‘he’s like me and he’s walking off with no time, five years probation. And I’m sitting here really worried,’” he said.