Fulton grand jury prepares to hear testimony in Trump probe

Raffensperger, top aides among those who will answer questions behind closed doors
Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger appears on Channel 2 Action News This Morning with Fred Blankenship and Lori Wilson on May 25, 2022, the morning after his upset victory over a Trump-backed primary opponent. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)



Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger appears on Channel 2 Action News This Morning with Fred Blankenship and Lori Wilson on May 25, 2022, the morning after his upset victory over a Trump-backed primary opponent. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

The Fulton County District Attorney’s wide-ranging criminal investigation into efforts to overturn Georgia’s 2020 presidential election is heating up, weeks after the seating of a special purpose grand jury with subpoena power.

Jurors are slated to hear closed-door testimony from Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger on Thursday, according to his subpoena, which was obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through an open records request.

They also filed separate subpoenas to interview five of Raffensperger’s current and former top aides, including Deputy Secretary of State Gabe Sterling, the week of June 6 and at least one state senator later in the month.

“You comply with subpoenas,” Sterling told Channel 2 Action News, which first reported news of his subpoena. “You go in there, you tell the truth, follow the law and that’s what this office always does and will continue to do.”

Raffensperger will be one of the first witnesses from which the 23-person special grand jury hears testimony since jurors were selected on May 2. Fulton DA Fani Willis has refrained from calling witnesses to testify during the month of May to avoid appearing politically motivated ahead of this week’s primaries.

But with those elections in the rearview mirror and key witnesses like Raffensperger, Gov. Brian Kemp and Attorney General Chris Carr now clear of their intraparty battles, the jury is expected to issue a flurry of additional subpoenas in the weeks ahead.

Raffensperger is at the center of at least two of the events being examined by Fulton County prosecutors.

The first is the hour-long phone call Trump placed to him on Jan. 2, 2021, in which the then-president pressed Raffensperger to “find” 11,780 votes to reverse Democrat Joe Biden’s win in Georgia.

The second involves another call that Raffensperger received two months earlier, in the days following the Nov. 3 election, from Trump ally U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. Raffenpserger said that Graham had questioned him, as election officials conducted a recount and audit of the presidential race, about whether he had the power to disqualify more absentee ballots based on mismatched signatures.

The special grand jury requested that Raffensperger provide evidence, including any writing “that memorializes the events” surrounding his phone call with Trump, as well as a log of telephone calls between members of the secretary of state’s office, Trump or his associates.

Jurors also asked for a copy of the forensic audit of Georgia’s Dominion voting equipment that was conducted by the group Pro V&V after the election, and the agreement the secretary of state’s office inked with the Carter Center that allowed the latter to observe the state’s planned risk-limiting audit of the presidential race, among other records.

In addition to Sterling, the special grand jury issued subpoenas for the testimony of Ryan Germany, the general counsel for the secretary of state’s office and Victoria Thompson, who was an executive assistant during the elections and is now legislative liaison. It also requested interviews with former secretary of state office employees Frances Watson and Chris Harvey.

Sterling, who was the state’s voting system manager for the 2020 election, is most famous for his emotional appeal during a December 2020 press conference calling for Trump to “stop inspiring people to commit potential acts of violence.”

Germany was present on the Trump-Raffensperger call and can be heard throughout the conversation defending the state’s handling of the election and subsequent recounts, saying “the numbers we are showing are accurate.”

Watson, who now works for the Georgia Department of Revenue, was the chief investigator for the Secretary of State’s office in December 2020 when she was contacted by Trump. During that phone call, the president told Watson she would find “dishonesty” if she scrutinized absentee ballots in Fulton County and that she would be praised when “the right answer” came out.

During the 2020 elections, Harvey was the elections director for the secretary of state’s office and received death threats as a result of his work. He’s now deputy director of the Georgia Peace Officers Standards and Training Council.

Prosecutor interviews

Among the potential violations of Georgia law Willis is examining are criminal solicitation to commit election fraud, intentional interference with the performance of election duties, conspiracy and racketeering, she previously told state officials.

Over the last several weeks, the DA’s 10-member prosecutorial team has continued to reach out to some 60 witnesses who may have relevant information. Previously, Willis’ staff had interviewed at least 50 voluntary witnesses, she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in mid-April.

She recently confirmed that she’s interested in the December 2020 ceremony in the state Capitol at which 16 GOP electors cast sham Electoral College votes for Trump.

Among the people who have spoken with prosecutors without a subpoena are at least two of the 16 alternate GOP electors, according to two people with direct knowledge of the investigation. Georgia GOP Chairman David Shafer was among the two, CNN recently reported. Shafer and a Georgia GOP spokesman did not return requests for comment.

That same group is also of interest to the Jan. 6 committee on Capitol Hill and the Justice Department, which recently interviewed several of the Georgia Republicans who refused to join the slate of alternate electors. DOJ is reviewing the official-looking documents that GOP electors from seven swing states that voted for Biden sent to the National Archives to determine whether the participants committed crimes.

Meanwhile, State Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, told the AJC that she recently spoke with the DA’s office and received a subpoena to testify before the special grand jury later in June.

“I don’t know what the investigation is going to focus on. I do know that one aspect of it that I had involvement with were the Senate Government Oversight and Judiciary committee hearings, one of which Rudy Giuliani made an appearance at,” she said, referring to Trump’s personal lawyer.

“I am of course happy to do my civic duty and cooperate with any investigation,” Parent added.

During his testimony in December 2020, Giuliani made claims about Georgia’s election system that were filled with conspiracy theories, falsehoods and half-truths and were quickly rebutted by state officials.

Parent was one of the few senators who pushed back on Giuliani’s remarks. That led to her being doxed and receiving death threats on social media, and ultimately prompted her to request police protection.

Parent’s subpoena was first reported by Yahoo News, which also said that Willis hired Marietta trial attorney Nathan Wade as an outside special counsel for the investigation.

A spokesman for the Fulton DA’s office did not dispute any of the reporting about the recent developments in the investigation.

Prosecutors, meanwhile, have also told the AJC to expect a subpoena for the testimony of political reporter Greg Bluestein, who reported extensively about the 2020 elections, including the alternative GOP electors and phone calls between Trump and multiple Georgia officials.

Managing Editor Shawn McIntosh said if Bluestein or any reporter is subpoenaed, the AJC expects to file an objection seeking to dismiss the subpoena.

“We’re very proud of Greg Bluestein’s reporting on the 2020 elections, but reporters gather information to publish it, not to serve as witnesses.”

It’s customary for the AJC, and other major American news organizations, to seek to avoid reporters having to testify about information they obtain while reporting the news.

Georgia, like most states, has well-established legal grounds for these objections, to prevent reporters from being used as witnesses for either side of a case, except in extraordinary circumstances. The so-called “reporter’s privilege” recognizes that preventing the use of reporters as witnesses is essential to preserving the independence of journalists.

The road ahead

The special grand jury is authorized to meet through May 2023. While it can issue subpoenas for information, evidence and testimony from reluctant witnesses, it does not have the power to indict.

It will instead issue a set of recommendations at the end of its tenure about whether Willis should pursue charges in front of one of Fulton County’s regular grand juries. But the decision ultimately rests with Willis.

In an interview with the AJC last month, Willis said she will not hesitate to indict someone if she can prove that they broke the law.

“I’m going to write the elements to this crime are A, B and C. Do we have those elements? If so, what witness gives me Fact A, Fact B and Fact C? What document proves Fact A, Fact B and Fact C? If we can do that, I’m going to bring an indictment — I don’t care who it is,” she said.