Credit: Sarah Kallis / GPB News
Battleground: Ballot Box | Breaking down the Georgia indictments
More than two and a half years after the Fulton County District Attorney’s office opened an investigation, a grand jury has handed up indictments related to Georgia’s 2020 presidential election.
"Today, based on information developed by that investigation, a Fulton County grand jury returned a true bill of indictment, charging 19 individuals with violations of Georgia law arising from a criminal conspiracy to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election in this state," Fulton District Attorney Fani Willis said Monday night. "Every individual charged in the indictment is charged with one count of violating Georgia's Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act through participation in a criminal enterprise in Fulton County, Georgia, and elsewhere to accomplish the illegal goal of allowing Donald J. Trump to wrongfully seize the presidential term of office beginning Jan. 20, 2021."
The sweeping racketeering case includes 135 total charges of violating 21 different offenses across 16 code sections and sees 19 people under indictment from Georgia and beyond, including former President Trump.
On this episode, we dig deeper into the Georgia election interference indictments.
On most Monday mornings, the street outside the Fulton County Courthouse and Government Center sees a regular mix of hustle and bustle — steady traffic flowing through downtown Atlanta mixes with the squeaks and groans of shuttles for jurors and employees and the clanging sounds of construction.
But Monday, Aug. 14, saw crowds and chaos as a mix of journalists, law enforcement and onlookers converged on the cordoned-off block of Pryor Street.
It was a day two and a half years in the making, as a grand jury heard the case against former President Trump and 18 of his allies and voted to indict them for crimes stemming from failed efforts to overturn the 2020 election, culminating with a late-night press conference from Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis.
Along the way, there were revelations about witnesses, accidental publication of proposed charges, live tweets from the jury waiting room, endless speculation about what charges would be handed up and wondering if Georgia would be where Trump would be indicted for the fourth time in as many months.
The indictments weren't expected to be Monday. In previous racketeering cases presented by Willis and the Fulton County DA’s office, prosecutors took multiple days to present large amounts of evidence against a voluminous number of defendants, and the sprawling 2020 election interference probe appeared to be no different. That timeline appeared to be confirmed when two witnesses, former Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and independent journalist George Chidi, revealed last week they had been subpoenaed to testify on Tuesday.
But something happened around lunchtime Monday that likely accelerated the timeline and added further fuel to the fire for Trump’s supporters who argue any prosecution is biased. A Reuters reporter tweeted that the grand jury had delivered indictments against Trump, and the online news machine went into overdrive. But there was one problem: the grand jury didn’t indict Trump yet, and was in the middle of hearing from witnesses.
The district attorney’s office quickly pushed back on the posts, and Reuters revealed the news was based off a quickly published-then-unpublished case docket on the court website. The clerk’s office responsible for filing documents issued an ill-advised press release calling the documents “fictitious,” then after the final charges matched the initial fleeting filing, issued a later followup release called the posting a “mishap.”
What actually happened, according to clerk Ché Alexander, is that she hit “send” instead of “save” when working on preparations for when the final indictments actually came.
“I am human,” she said in an interview.
The system used by the clerk’s office to input case information is cumbersome to use and entering individual charges takes a considerable amount of time, including statutes violated and other information. And with 19 defendants and international attention on these indictments, the clerk’s office appears to have started pre-filling that information based on proposed charges the DA’s office sought to present to the grand jury in an effort to quickly get the information to the press and public.
That mistake led to attacks from right-wing media sympathetic to Trump and a blistering statement from Trump’s attorneys continuing their attack on the DA’s office. Once the actual indictments were voted on, that theoretical speedy release of the charges was nowhere to be seen, as reporters camped out in the clerk’s office for several hours until the case was made public.
While the grand jury met behind closed doors, some of the witnesses that were called before them spoke to the media on their way in or out of the courthouse, providing more insight into the focus of future charges. There were at least six witnesses subpoenaed to testify before the grand jury, such as former Democratic lawmakers Rep. Bee Nguyen and Sen. Jen Jordan, who were present at a series of legislative hearings where Trump allies falsely claimed lawmakers could change the electoral outcome.
Others that appeared include Gabe Sterling, a top official with the secretary of state’s office who'd delivered an emotional plea for Trump to stop attacking election workers and results amidst a firehose of misinformation.
"Someone's going to get hurt, someone's going to get shot, someone's going to get killed," he said at forceful news conference in December 2020. "It's not right."
Former Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who nominally oversaw the state Senate that was a central place for election denialism and efforts to overturn the election, also testified. And while he was not one of the elected officials who received private calls exhorting him to change the outcome, he did face attacks from the former president.
The most interesting publicly known witness was independent journalist George Chidi, who tweeted that he was waiting with at least one other individual that hadn’t publicly acknowledged testifying.
Much of what we know about the timing of the day comes from Chidi, who was very active on social media with his thoughts and observations about everything from the jerk chicken served for dinner, Willis’ choice of footwear and his prospects for making it out to see a late-night showing of the movie Oppenheimer.
Chidi was one of the people who happened upon the Georgia GOP’s convening of alternate electors shrouded in secrecy, and ultimately was not called in front of the jury. But on his way out of the courthouse, he told GPB’s Sarah Kallis that despite being a journalist he was willing to speak.
"I fear for the state of my nation; it's part of the reason I was willing to testify," he said. "We are one bad day away from turning into Northern Ireland, the way we treat each other politically."
Around 9 p.m., after the 23 members of the jury finished voting, the indictment was delivered to Judge Robert McBurney who signed them and handed them off to the clerk to be filed. The two hours between the indictment being unsealed and the charges being made public were rife with people responding to them without actually knowing what was in them.
And all the national media that descended upon the courthouse, needing to fill time on the air, chased every little morsel of information to try and advance the story, like falsely claiming that the grand jury issued 10 indictments in the Trump case when it was just one.
Just before 11 p.m., officials started ushering reporters into a press conference where Willis would speak and shortly after charges started to populate on the court website. As expected, it was a racketeering case against 19 people, including the former president.
Willis held a press conference walking through the racketeering charges, arguing nearly 50 total conspirators — unindicted and not — participated in a criminal enterprise "to accomplish the illegal goal of allowing Donald J. Trump to seize the presidential term of office beginning Jan. 20, 2021."
"Specifically, the participants in association took various actions in Georgia and elsewhere to block the counting of the votes of the presidential electors who were certified as the winners of Georgia's 2020 general election," she said.
All 19 defendants were charged with violating the state’s RICO law, and the 98-page indictment spelled out 161 acts that were both predicate acts of law violations that led to the RICO charge and other actions that, while not illegal, point to the scope and scale of the efforts to illegally overturn the election.
It opens up with a simple, four-sentence introduction explaining why a law typically used for gangs or the mafia applies to the former president and a slew of other Republicans.
“Defendant Donald John Trump lost the United States presidential election held on November 3, 2020. One of the states he lost was Georgia. Trump and the other Defendants charged in this Indictment refused to accept that Trump lost, and they knowingly and willfully joined a conspiracy to unlawfully change the outcome of the election in favor of Trump. That conspiracy contained common plan and purpose to commit two or more acts of racketeering activity in Fulton County, Georgia, elsewhere in the State of Georgia, and in other states.”
"As you examine the indictment, you will see acts that are identified as overt acts and those that are identified as predicate acts, sometimes called acts of racketeering activity," Willis said. "Overt acts are not necessarily crimes under Georgia law in isolation, but are alleged to be acts taken in furtherance of the conspiracy."
Thirteen different Donald Trump tweets are included as overt acts in furtherance of the conspiracy, as are actions like former Georgia GOP Chairman David Shafer reserving a room at the Capitol for the false elector meeting.
Many of the overt acts mentioned are developments we reported earlier on the podcast, like Trump’s call to Georgia election investigator Frances Watson asking her to find fraud in an audit of absentee ballot envelopes in Cobb County.
"But whatever you can do, Frances, it would be — it's a great thing," Trump said in the call. "It's an important thing for the country."
We also learned that Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows texted Watson to ask if the campaign could send money to have signature verification done sooner.
The list of acts fall into eight buckets that show the manner and methods of the enterprise:
- False statements to and solicitation of state legislatures, which includes efforts by Trump allies Rudy Giuiliani and others to overturn results in states beyond Georgia;
- False statements to and solicitation of high-ranking state officials, which includes calls to Gov. Brian Kemp and other elected officials in Arizona, Michigan and Pennsylvania;
- The creation and distribution of false electoral college documents in Georgia and other states;
- Harassment and intimidation of Fulton County election worker Ruby Freeman;
- Solicitation of high-ranking United States Department of Justice officials for a plan to tell Georgia lawmakers the DOJ had concerns about Georgia’s election;
- Solicitation of the Vice President of the United States to reject Georgia’s presidential electors;
- Unlawful breach of election equipment in Georgia and elsewhere and
- Obstructive acts in furtherance of the conspiracy and cover up.
In all, about a quarter of the acts mentioned in the indictment contain alleged illegal activity that led to racketeering charges, including a core set of false statements about Georgia’s election results that are found in multiple counts against multiple people.
Take the Dec. 3 state Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing, where three now-indicted individuals including Rudy Giuliani, constitutional scholar John Eastman and Georgia lawyer Ray Smith spoke about alleged improprieties with the election.
While Smith said things like “it is impossible, impossible to certify the results of the 2020 presidential election,” the specific comments that a grand jury indicted him for included this claim:
“What we are presenting to the court and to you today as the Georgia legislature are facts, facts: 2,506 felons voted illegally in Georgia, 66,248 underage and therefore ineligible people to illegally register to vote before their 17th birthday, when the law requires 17 and a half years old," Smith said in the hearing. "At least 2,423 individuals voted who were not listed as registered. 1,043 individuals who cast ballots who had illegally registered to vote using a post office box. 4,926 individuals voted in Georgia who had registered to vote after their Georgia voter registration date, thereby canceling their Georgia voter registration... 10,315 or more individuals who voted who are deceased by the time of the election.”
Those were not facts, and in fact the secretary of state’s office had earlier that day explained that their investigation had found no widespread fraud or potential illegal votes. Here’s Ryan Germany, the then-general counsel for the secretary of state’s office.
“We have about 300 instances of alleged double voting, people that voted absentee and on Election Day, so we're we're looking at that," he said. "That's significantly down from what happened in the primary, based on some protections we put in place. We have about 70 instances of potential felon voting, so that's what we're looking at. But no, we have not seen any in anything that would suggest widespread fraud or widespread problems with with the voting system.”
Smith, who also served as counsel for Trump’s lawsuits in Georgia, faces 12 total counts under the indictment, including three counts of solicitation of violation of oath by a public officer, false statements and a slew of conspiracy charges for his role in the falsehood-filled hearings and alternate elector slate.
Much of the evidence against him and others comes from actions taken in the open, in recorded conversations.
For example, another one of Smith’s charges of false statements and writing as well as solicitation of violation of oath by public officer came weeks later in a Dec. 30 hearing, where he misrepresented what the Secretary of State’s office said about the election.
"Last week, and in this very Capitol building, there was testimony from the secretary of state through its counsel, Ryan Germany, that they sent letters to 8,000 Georgians or excuse me — 8,000 voters, not Georgians — 8,000 people who voted illegally on Nov. 3 and told them not to vote on Tuesday," he said. "That's right. 8,000 people told them not to vote for the U.S. Senate in the U.S. Senate race. That's almost three-fourths of the margin of victory of Nov. 3."
But what Germany actually said the week before in response to a question on that topic was this:
"What we did to arrive at that moment is look at people who have filed an out-of-state [National Change of Address Notice] and have also requested an absentee ballot," he said. "And what we sent them was a letter I'm happy to share with the committee that says as a reminder, you have to be an eligible Georgia resident — that you might very well might be, but they might not be."
Trump faces 13 counts for everything from filing false documents — in a Dec. 31, 2020, lawsuit filled with false claims about Georgia’s election that were both already debunked and that attorney John Eastman acknowledged ahead of time were false — to solicitation of violation of oath by public officer for his call with Raffensperger.
The grand jury indictment hones in on 13 statements Trump made in that call as violations of the false statements and writings statute, including previously mentioned claims about dead voters and illegal votes, false claims about results in other states and more, including this statement.
“Brad, we just want the truth," Trump said. "It's simple and everyone's going to look very good as the truth comes out, It's OK, and [it'll] take a little while, but let the truth come out. And the real truth is I won by 400,000 votes. At least that's the real truth.”
As for the most notable part of the call asking Raffensperger to "find 11,780 votes?" While not specifically mentioned in the indictment, Trump and Meadows are also charged with solicitation of violation of oath by public officer for that call, and the former president is also facing a charge for a call with late House Speaker David Ralston where Trump asked him unsuccessfully to call a special legislative session to overturn the results.
Aside from the false claims made in legislative hearings — where Giuliani, Eastman, Smith and Jenna Ellis face charges — the scheme to pass off a false slate of Republican presidential electors to Congress encompasses the next chunk of charges.
Only three of the 16 fake electors face criminal counts: former Georgia Republican Party chairman David Shafer, current state Sen. Shawn Still and former Coffee County GOP chairwoman Cathy Latham. The trio are charged with impersonating a public officer, forgery, false statements and writings, criminal attempt to commit filing false documents for their roles in signing documents claiming to be official electors.
Shafer and Still face were also indicted on counts of forgery and false statements of writing for submitting documents purporting to have replaced four electors who declined to participate in the sham ceremony. Under Georgia law, any vacancy filled must go to the governor, who is then supposed to notify them of being an elector, and because this wasn’t a sanctioned meeting with sanctioned electors, the document asking the governor to select new electors was fraudulent, too.
Also caught up in the fake elector plan are Trump, Giuiliani, Eastman, Smith, lawyers Kenneth Chesebro and Bob Cheeley along with Trump campaign official Michael Roman. Cheseboro notably drafted a memo outlining the plans to have alternate slates of electors pushed through the Electoral College vote, Cheeley helped connect different players in Georgia with the campaign and Roman helped coordinate the multi-state plan for electors meeting.
As an aside, Cheeley, is also the lawyer representing election conspiracists who have been trying to access ballots in Georgia. He faces a perjury charge for allegedly lying to the special purpose grand jury about his role with the fraudulent electors.
One of the more poignant sets of charges stems from the effort to harass and intimidate Fulton County election worker Ruby Freeman into falsely admitting she had committed election fraud.
Freeman and her daughter Shaye Moss faced death threats and more after the Giuliani-led hearing in early December 2020 where they were falsely accused of counting secretly added ballots multiple times.
Giuliani baselessly claimed the duo were manipulating election results.
"It's a tape earlier in the day of Ruby Freeman and Shaye Freeman Moss and one other gentlemen quite obviously, surreptitiously passing around USB ports as if they are vials of heroin, of cocaine," he said. "I mean, it's out. It's obvious to anyone who's a criminal investigator or prosecutor. They are engaged in surreptitious, illegal activity again that day."
That's a claim that was amplified by Trump in his Raffensperger call — one of the many false statements that both now face charges for.
"We had at least 18,000 — that's on tape, we had them counted very painstakingly — 18,000 voters having to do with Ruby Freeman, she's a vote scammer, a professional vote scammer and hustler," he said. "Ruby Freeman, that is, that was the tape that's been shown all over the world that makes everybody look bad."
And a trio of others are now roped into the racketeering case for their roles in trying to pressure Freeman to change her story.
Trevian Kutti, a publicist who previously worked with rapper Kanye West; Stephen Lee, a chaplain and former police officer from Illinois; and Harrison Floyd, who once led the “Black Voices for Trump” group, are charged with involvement in a plan that saw the three meet with Freeman at various points in efforts to get her to admit she committed election fraud.
The trio are being charged with conspiracy to commit solicitation of false statements and writings for their efforts, and Lee faces two additional influencing witness charges for visits to Freeman’s house and to her neighbor’s house.
Freeman and Moss testified to the Jan. 6 U.S. House committee and provided insight into the human impact the false fraud claims had on elections officials and everyday workers across the country.
“I've lost my name and I've lost my reputation, I've lost my sense of security," Freeman said. "All because a group of people, starting with No. 45 and his ally, Rudy Giuliani, decided to scapegoat me and my daughter Shaye, to push their own lies about how the presidential election was stolen.”
The final bucket of charges in the indictment stems from the effort to copy election data from rural Coffee County, led by Trump-aligned attorney Sidney Powell and including former Coffee elections supervisor Misty Hampton; Cathy Latham, the former county GOP chairwoman; and an Atlanta bail bondsman named Scott Hall.
They face a plethora of charges including conspiracy to commit computer trespass, conspiracy to commit computer invasion of privacy and conspiracy to commit computer theft for their role in hiring a firm to come in and image all parts of the election system to find alleged fraud.
The indictment also charges them with conspiracy to defraud the state under the allegation of stealing voter data that is under the secretary of state’s purview and control and conspiracy to commit election fraud by violating statutes on unlawful possession of ballots and interference with primaries and elections.
This is a thorough but non-exhaustive examination of the characters and charges unveiled by the district attorney this week, and in the days since there has been a flurry of activity.
Meadows has filed a notice seeking to move his case from state to federal court and arguing his actions were a protected part of his job as White House Chief of Staff.
Fulton DA Fani Willis has filed a proposed schedule for the case, beginning with arraignment the week of Labor Day and a trial starting March 4, just a week before the state’s presidential primary.
And Trump himself promised a press conference Monday where he would unveil a "Large, Complex, Detailed but Irrefutable REPORT on fraud in Georgia," which would likely include many of the false claims and actions he was indicted for earlier this week — and which was ultimately canceled.
On the next episode of Battleground: Ballot Box
We visit The Gathering, a Georgia confab of conservative voters and many of Donald Trump’s Republican presidential rivals to see what impact, if any, this fourth indictment and turmoil in Georgia has on the 2024 primary race.
Battleground: Ballot Box is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting and is produced by Chase McGee. Our engineer is Jake Cook, our editor is Josephine Bennett and the theme music was created by me, Stephen Fowler. Subscribe to our show at GPB.org/battleground or anywhere you get podcasts.