ATLANTA (AP) — The chairman of the Georgia Republican Party cannot share lawyers with 10 other fake electors in matters related to a special grand jury investigation into possible illegal meddling in the 2020 election in the state, a judge ruled Wednesday.
A special grand jury was seated earlier this year to aid the investigation by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis into whether Republican former President Donald Trump and others committed crimes through their efforts to overturn his 2020 presidential election loss to Democrat Joe Biden.
Willis has made clear that she is interested in the actions of 16 Republicans who signed a certificate declaring falsely that Trump had won and also declaring themselves the state’s “duly elected and qualified” electors, even though Biden had won the state, and a slate of Democratic electors was certified. Willis has said in a court filing that she notified lawyers for those 16 people that they are targets of her investigation, meaning that they could face criminal charges.
Eleven of those fake electors, including Georgia Republican Party Chairman David Shafer, are represented by two lawyers who are paid by the party, Holly Pierson and Kimberly Debrow. Willis’ team in October filed a motion seeking to disqualify the two from representing all of those clients, saying it represented a conflict of interest.
They argued that, if Pierson and Debrow continue to represent any of the 11, “there is a serious possibility of future ethical problems concerning confidentiality of information obtained in the course of their representation thus far.”
Pierson and Debrow countered that each of their clients has affirmed to them that they have not committed any crimes, and that they have no knowledge of any of the others having committed any crimes. The district attorney’s “assumption that the jointly represented nominee electors can ‘flip’ on each other or otherwise provide incriminating information as to any other jointly represented elector is simply inaccurate, as well as legally insufficient,” they argued.
They also noted that all 11 of their clients have signed waivers noting that they understand the implications of joint representation.
Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney, who’s overseeing the special grand jury, noted in his order Wednesday that “the best waiver in the world cannot fix a non-waivable conflict” but said he finds “very few such conflicts” at this phase of the investigation.
Special grand juries in Georgia can gather evidence and compel testimony from witnesses, but they cannot issue indictments. Instead, they can recommend further action, including criminal charges, in a final report. It is ultimately up to the district attorney to decide whether to seek an indictment from a regular grand jury.
McBurney noted that it is true that, if charges are brought that include any of the fake electors, one of the fake electors could be called to testify against another at trial. At that point, the judge noted, Pierson and Debrow likely could not represent either one.
“But that is a remote and hypothetical scenario that does not now exist,” McBurney wrote.
Shafer, however, is an exception because of his role in establishing and convening the slate of fake electors, his communications with other key players in the investigation and his role in other post-election efforts to question the validity of Georgia’s election results, McBurney wrote.
This “imbalance in exposure” to the investigation “makes it impractical and arguably unethical” for Pierson and Debrow to continue to represent all 11 of their clients, McBurney wrote. The pair of lawyers may represent Shafer or the other 10, but not both, he concluded.