By Linda So
Image: Donald Trump, Nov. 13, 2020. Source: Official White House photo by Tia Dufour
(Reuters) – The lone Democrat on Georgia’s state election board plans to introduce a motion next month urging state attorney general Chris Carr to open a criminal investigation into former President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the state’s 2020 election results.
The plan by David Worley has not been previously reported. The proposal follows other calls for an investigation into a phone call Trump made to pressure Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to overturn the election results based on false voter fraud claims.
The motion, which Worley plans to present on Feb. 10, would also urge a criminal probe by Fulton County district attorney Fani Willis, a Democrat who has said she would “enforce the law” in relation to Trump’s call.
Jeff DiSantis, a spokesman for Willis, declined to comment on the possibility of a criminal probe. The attorney general’s office declined to comment on whether it would investigate but said the election board has the authority to report violations to the AG for prosecution.
In the Jan. 2 phone call, Trump urged Raffensperger, a fellow Republican, to “find” enough votes to overturn his Georgia loss. Trump made another phone call in December to Georgia’s chief elections investigator, Raffensperger’s office said.
Legal experts and attorneys said Trump’s calls may have violated at least three state criminal laws: conspiracy to commit election fraud, criminal solicitation to commit election fraud, and intentional interference with performance of election duties. The felony and misdemeanor violations are punishable by fines or imprisonment.
Worley, an Atlanta attorney, told Reuters he was shocked by the transcript of the Jan. 2 call. “The more I read it, the more disturbing I found it,” he said, calling it an unprecedented attempt to toss out certified votes that had been audited and recounted.
The transcript quotes Trump telling Raffensperger: “All I want to do is this: I just want to find 11,780 votes,” which is the number Trump needed to win.
Trump advisor Jason Miller did not respond to requests for comment.
On Jan. 6 – the day of the U.S. Capitol riots – Trump bragged about the call in a speech to supporters: “People love that conversation because it says what’s going on,” he said. “These people are crooked.”
In addition to the calls for Georgia state investigations, two Democratic members of the U.S. Congress – Kathleen Rice, of New York, and Ted Lieu, of California – asked in a Jan. 4 letter to the Federal Bureau of Investigation for a criminal probe into Trump’s call to Raffensperger.
The calls for investigations are one illustration of the legal perils facing Trump since he lost the constitutional protections that shield sitting presidents from prosecution. Trump now faces nearly a dozen legal battles, including a criminal probe by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance into his business dealings and several civil lawsuits.
PRESSURE ESCALATES IN GEORGIA
In Georgia, Fulton County’s newly elected district attorney, Willis, has held internal discussions about launching a criminal probe to investigate Trump’s alleged election interference, according to people familiar with the matter.
Such an investigation could take several months before a grand jury decides whether the evidence supports criminal charges. Willis would likely assign a specialized team, possibly including outside counsel, to focus exclusively on the high-profile case, said Joshua Morrison, a former Fulton County senior assistant district attorney who used to work with Willis.
“That team will do nothing but work this case,” he said.
Legal experts say Georgia prosecutors could have a strong enough case to move forward with a criminal probe.
“If you just take the idea that it’s the president out of the equation, it becomes a much simpler and clearer thing to imagine,” said Michael Moore, the former U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Georgia and a former Democratic state senator. “Was this a threatening call? Was it an effort to influence the election? Does it warrant an investigation?”
The election board’s Worley needs the support of at least two Republicans on the five-member board to pass his motion calling for investigations. One Republican member is Raffensperger, whose office declined to comment on how he might vote – or whether he would recuse himself because he was on the call with Trump.
Another Republican board member, Matthew Mashburn, told Reuters it would be “premature” to comment on how he would vote but that it’s the board’s duty to “make sure the elections are as fair and transparent and accurate as possible.”
The other two Republican board members, Anh Le and Rebecca Sullivan, did not respond to requests for comment. If the motion fails to reach a majority, Worley said he would send the matter directly to Willis and Carr himself.
The board’s requests for investigations have no force of law, but they carry weight with prosecutors. Mashburn said he has never seen the attorney general or district attorney refuse to investigate a case referred by the election board.
The board bases its motions seeking investigations on complaints from the public and election officials about improprieties. The complaint that prompted Worley’s motion came from John Banzhaf, a George Washington University law professor with a long history of public-interest legal work, which includes playing a role in driving cigarette commercials off the air. Banzhaf, 80, said he grabbed his laptop immediately after hearing reports of Trump’s phone call to Raffensperger and started typing out the complaint from his vacation home in Florida.
“I thought it was a good idea to force the issue,” he said in an interview. “Bottom line: I think there’s a strong case against Mr. Trump.”
Reporting by Linda So; editing by Jason Szep and Brian Thevenot.