Georgia 2020 election inquiry may lead to prison sentences, prosecutor says
The Washington Post September 16, 2022
ATLANTA — The prosecutor investigating efforts by Donald Trump and his allies to challenge the 2020 election results in Georgia said this week that her team has heard credible allegations that serious crimes have been committed and that she believes some individuals may see jail time.
"The allegations are very serious. If indicted and convicted, people are facing prison sentences," Fulton County District Attorney Fani T. Willis told The Washington Post.
No decision will be made for months on whether there will be indictments - and, most notably, if Trump himself will face charges. At least 17 people have been notified they are targets of the criminal investigation, meaning they could eventually face charges. And more targets will be added to the list soon, Willis said in an interview Tuesday in her Atlanta office.
Willis would not discuss any of the targets by name and has not said if she's willing to charge the former president. Trump could be called to appear as a witness before the special grand jury that was convened this spring as part of the investigation, Willis said Tuesday.
"A decision is going to have to be made," she said on whether to seek Trump's testimony, "and I imagine it's going to be made late this fall."
So far, the group of known targets includes former Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani and the state's 16 would-be Trump electors who created unofficial documents proclaiming Trump as the winner of Georgia's electoral votes, even though he lost the state. Lawyers for Giuliani and the electors have denied any wrongdoing. Lawyers for the electors say their clients followed the law and made clear they met as a contingency measure as they waited for a court to rule on a challenge to the Georgia vote.
Trump said during a Thursday interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt that he hasn't received any target letters "at all" in ongoing criminal investigations. He denied involvement in the multistate plan by Republicans to send the names of Trump electors to Washington, but said such alternate elector slates were "very common."
The Fulton County investigation is far from the only inquiry into Trump's conduct around the 2020 election. The House select committee investigating Jan. 6 has looked extensively at the electors scheme and other matters. The Justice Department is investigating Trump's actions related to the election as part of a federal grand jury probe.
In addition to investigating the Trump electors' actions, Willis is looking at potential criminal wrongdoing in calls Trump and his allies made to Georgia officials, false statements made to lawmakers, harassment of election officials and the tampering of election systems in one county in southern Georgia.
Willis said she anticipates wrapping up the fact-finding stage of the inquiry before the end of the year, even as she continues to expand its reach. She said the probe will stop public activities, such as calling witnesses, for the month leading to the general election. When the special grand jury has finished hearing from witnesses, it is expected to provide Willis with a report that could include recommendations for indictments. She will then decide which individuals, if any, to charge.
Willis's open and frank assessment is unusual for a prosecutor, as such high-profile investigations are often shrouded in secrecy. Her approach in this inquiry has drawn criticism from some in the legal community, and it contrasts with the general reticence of Attorney General Merrick Garland. Willis said she believes transparency is a requirement of her job.
Her latest comments come as Republicans in Georgia - including the state's governor - have complained that her investigation is politically motivated, a claim Willis, a Democrat, denies.
She noted that there was no grand jury activity during the period of the state's primary election this spring and that she plans a similar quiet period starting Oct. 7 in advance of the November midterms.
"I didn't want people to claim that this was some political stunt that we were doing to impact the election," she said.
Willis said that the special grand jury has interviewed about 65 percent of the dozens of witnesses whose testimony has been sought by prosecutors.
"I'm pleased with where it is. I think we're moving along at a really good speed," Willis said, adding she was not concerned that some witnesses, including Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), have resisted appearing before the grand jury.
"We are going to be done calling witnesses by the end of this year. Period," she said.
The probe has already seen appearances from many high-profile witnesses, including Giuliani, who was informed last month that he is a target.
Giuliani's lawyer, Robert Costello, declined to comment on Willis's latest remarks.
In addition to Giuliani, Willis has notified 16 would-be Trump electors from Georgia that they, too, are targets of the probe. In the past, lawyers for some of the electors suggested their clients would have cooperated with the inquiry had Willis not identified them as targets. The lawyers declined to comment on Willis's latest remarks.
In the interview, Willis said she fleetingly hoped she would not have to open the 2020 election inquiry at all. She had been in office only a couple of days in early January 2021 when news reports from The Post and others described Trump's call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) urging him to "find" additional votes to overcome Joe Biden's lead in Georgia.
Willis said she quickly realized she would have to investigate the alleged election interference. "I understood that if this occurred in Fulton County, it is serious enough that it needed to be looked at," she said.
Since then, Willis's probe has grown and represents - along with a ramped up federal inquiry - a serious threat that criminal charges could be brought against Trump and his allies.
Trump has criticized Willis on social media as a "young, ambitious, Radical Left Democrat ... who is presiding over one of the most Crime Ridden and Corrupt places in the USA."
Willis says she is undeterred by such criticism and by the regular threats directed against her.
Court filings and interviews indicate her team continues to examine several key themes. First, they are pursuing whether there were violations of Georgia law prohibiting false statements to government officials. Those statutes could apply to Giuliani and other Trump campaign advisers who cited evidence - later debunked - of widespread election fraud when speaking to Georgia legislative committees.
Second, Willis is examining the calls made by Trump and others to Georgia officials after the election. In court filings, Willis has cited a Georgia statute prohibiting the solicitation of election fraud.
Third, prosecutors have been pursuing the effort to send the names of would-be Trump electors from Georgia to Washington. Prosecutors are interested in whether sending official Trump electors from battleground states was part of an organized effort to give Vice President Mike Pence a reason to declare that the outcome of the election was in doubt when he presided over the congressional counting of electoral votes on Jan. 6, 2021.
Two weeks ago, Willis filed a petition seeking testimony from Boris Epshteyn, a lawyer who worked closely with Giuliani during the post- election period. The petition said Epshteyn "possesses unique knowledge" of "efforts by the Trump Campaign to submit false certificates of vote to former vice president Michael Pence and others."
Last week, Epshteyn and Giuliani were among those named in a federal subpoena seeking information about the plan to submit slates of would-be Trump electors from Georgia and other states.
Willis in recent weeks has added new items to her investigative agenda, including seeking detailed information about threats made to an election worker.
In December 2020, according to her court filings, Trump allies pressured and threatened Ruby Freeman, a Fulton County elections worker. Willis declined to comment on recent filings related to pressure on Freeman except to say: "I hate a bully. Obviously, I think we would find it offensive to bully an election official to influence an election."
Finally, Willis has expanded her probe to investigate whether election systems were improperly breached in Coffee County, Ga. That interest was initially disclosed in documents seeking testimony from Sidney Powell, a lawyer who worked for the Trump campaign after the 2020 election.
The Post was the first to report on the effort by Powell and other Trump allies to copy Coffee County's restricted election systems data. The effort occurred as Trump allies focused publicly on voting machines, making the case that they were part of a plot to rig the election for Biden.
Willis's petition for an appearance by Powell noted that, in addition to Coffee County, there is evidence indicating that Powell was "involved in similar efforts in Michigan and Nevada" during the same time that the Coffee County elections systems were supposedly breached. Powell did not respond to a request for comment.
Willis has suggested that this complex of activity - from organizing Trump electors to making false statements to applying pressure on local election officials - could be prosecuted under Georgia's conspiracy and anti-racketeering laws.
State anti-racketeering laws, known as Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act or RICO, were enacted decades ago as a legal tool to fight organized crime. Georgia's RICO statute has been used by Willis and others to prosecute an array of high-profile cases. In 2014, Willis was one of the lead prosecutors securing convictions and guilty pleas from 30 Atlanta public school teachers and administrators implicated in a scandal to cheat on student tests.
"The RICO statute allows you to tell jurors the full story" of a complex conspiracy, Willis said Tuesday, noting that Georgia law permits investigation of seemingly disparate acts even those that happen outside of a prosecutor's home county. "It's a great statute for prosecutors," she said.
The Washington Post's Alice Crites, Jon Swain and Emma Brown contributed to this report.