Sidney Powell’s journey: From prosecutor to prosecuted

‘Kraken’ attorney became a star in Trump universe before pleading guilty

In the wake of the 2020 presidential election, Sidney Powell hurled voting fraud allegations with a certainty and flamboyance that made her a star in the alternative universe where Donald Trump had defeated Joe Biden.

She spun outrageous tales of election software flipping votes under the influence of foreign dictators. She vowed to “release the Kraken” with lawsuits challenging Joe Biden’s victory in Georgia and other states. She urged Trump to seize voting machines and appoint her special prosecutor to investigate voting fraud.

None of those efforts changed the election outcome. And on Thursday in Atlanta, a more subdued Powell pleaded guilty to six misdemeanor counts for her role in an allegedly illegal election scheme to overturn the 2020 election. Now she must testify as prosecutors pursue charges against the man she worked so hard to keep in office.

It’s a dramatic turn of events for a woman whose career has seen plenty of them.

‘We were the good guys’

Powell, 68, once seemed to exemplify the American legal establishment.

By her own account, she came to love the legal profession at age 5, when she watched “Perry Mason” on television at home in Raleigh, N.C. At the University of North Carolina, Powell finished her bachelor’s degree in 21 months and was accepted to UNC’s law school at age 19 in 1974.

After graduating, she was hired as an assistant U.S. attorney in San Antonio. She helped prosecute drug smugglers during a violent era. Among them: Jimmy Chagra, who was implicated in the 1979 death of a federal judge.

“We were on the front lines of the drug wars,” recalled Carl Pierce, who worked with Powell in Texas.

Pierce prosecuted cases, while Powell handled any appeals. He said she was very good.

“She was a wordsmith and a good writer,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I was more of the finger-pointing prosecutor. I relied on her to maintain my convictions on appeal, despite whatever I did in court to jeopardize them.”

Powell served as a federal prosecutor for 10 years in Texas and Virginia. She rose to appellate section chief for the western and northern districts in Texas.

Later, she went into private practice, specializing in federal appeals. She served as president of the Bar Association of the Fifth Federal Circuit and of the American Academy of Appellate Lawyers.

But Powell eventually soured on the legal and political establishment. One of her clients was James Brown, a Merrill Lynch executive caught up in the Enron scandal in 2003. Federal prosecutors accused Enron, the Houston-based energy firm, of widespread fraud.

In one instance, prosecutors said Enron used a sham sale of electricity-generating barges to Merrill Lynch to boost its apparent earnings and make itself appear more profitable. A federal jury found four Merrill Lynch executives – including Brown – guilty of conspiracy and wire fraud. Brown also was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice.

A three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals later overturned the conspiracy and wire fraud convictions, faulting the government’s legal theory in the case. It upheld Brown’s perjury and obstruction convictions. By that time, the defendants had already served time in prison.

Powell tried unsuccessfully to appeal the remaining charges against Brown. She accused prosecutors of improperly withholding evidence that she said would have cleared her client.

A three-judge panel said the evidence might have marginally helped Brown’s case but would not likely have changed the outcome. The judges also found there was “considerable evidence of Brown’s guilt.”

Nonetheless, Powell was outraged by the prosecutors’ actions and by a judicial system she believed turned a blind eye. She vented her displeasure in a self-published 2014 book, “Licensed to Lie: Exposing Corruption in the Department of Justice.”

Pierce believes the Enron case had a profound effect on Powell.

“Here’s a lady who had many, many years working in the DOJ and U.S. attorney’s office. We were the good guys, they (criminals) were the bad guys,” he said. “And then she has this experience where the prosecutors in the DOJ are not the good guys. And that is something that was so important in her life.”

Disillusionment and conspiracy theories

By 2019, Powell was criticizing the Mueller investigation of Russian efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election.

Powell attracted national attention when she represented Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security advisor. who had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI in the Mueller probe. Trump eventually pardoned Flynn in December 2020.

Attorney Molly McCann Sanders, who worked with Powell on the Flynn case, said if Enron sparked Powell’s suspicion of the justice system the Flynn case sealed it. Sanders said she and Powell believed that Flynn “was the target of a larger effort within the government bureaucracy to destroy him and, through him, Trump.”

By 2020, Powell was running in Trump’s circles. In the aftermath of the election, she became a part of Trump’s “elite strike force” of attorneys and used a news coference to falsely claim that the Dominion Voting Systems software used in Georgia had “flipped” votes from Trump to Biden.

Powell filed a series of unsuccessful lawsuits challenging the election results in Georgia and other states. A Michigan judge later referred her for possible disbarment for “a historic and profound abuse of the judicial process.”

Powell’s conspiracy theories were on full display at a chaotic White House meeting in December 2020, where she urged Trump to seize election machines and to appoint her as a special counsel to investigate fraud.

Former White House lawyer Eric Herschmann called those proposals “nuts.” He cited the election lawsuits Powell and others had lost.

“She says, ‘Well, the judges are corrupt,’” Herschmann told investigators. “I’m like, ‘Every one? Every single case in the country you guys lost? Every one of them is corrupt? Even the ones we appointed?’”

But it was Powell’s alleged involvement in a plan to obtain voting system data from a rural county in southeast Georgia that led to charges of racketeering, conspiring to commit election fraud and other crimes.

On Jan. 7, 2021, computer analysts from an Atlanta tech firm visited the Coffee County election office and “stole data, including ballot images, voting equipment software and personal voter information,” according to the Fulton County indictment. Court records show the tech firm kept Powell informed of its progress and billed her for the operation.

Surveillance video of the Coffee County elections office shows green voter check-in tablets, called PollPads, on a table while tech experts and supporters of then-President Donald Trump examined elections equipment on Jan. 7, 2021. From left: computer analysts Paul Maggio, Jennifer Jackson and Jim Nelson of the data firm SullivanStrickler; Cathy Latham, a member of the Georgia Republican Party's executive committee; Ed Voyles, a former Coffee County elections board member; Misty Hampton, the county's elections director; and Eric Chaney, a Coffee County elections board member. Source: Coffee County

Credit: Coffee County video

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Credit: Coffee County video

Powell denied participating in the breach. But on Thursday she pleaded guilty to six misdemeanor counts of conspiracy to commit intentional interference with performance of election duties. Of the 19 people indicted in Fulton County’s election subversion case, she’s the second to plead guilty.

Powell’s outrageous claims made her famous. But friends see a different side of her. Sanders sees an “unusual mix of kind of naughty edginess and impeccable southern manners.” Pierce called her “a nice lady of the highest character” – one who bought his daughter Christmas presents and baked Moravian sugar cakes.

“If you look for a motivation for what she’s accused of doing wrong, it’s not money or power,” he said. “She’s trying to do the right thing.”