Little-Known Lawyer, a Trump Ally, Draws Scrutiny in Georgia

The U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, on March 8, 2023. (Hailey Sadler/The New York Times)

The U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, on March 8, 2023. (Hailey Sadler/The New York Times)

ATLANTA — At a Georgia state Senate hearing a few weeks after President Donald Trump lost his bid for reelection, Rudy Giuliani began making outlandish claims. “There are 10 ways to demonstrate that this election was stolen, that the votes were phony, that there were a lot of them — dead people, felons, phony ballots,” he told the assembled legislators.

After Giuliani’s testimony, a like-minded Georgia lawyer named Robert Cheeley presented video clips of election workers handling ballots at State Farm Arena in downtown Atlanta. Cheeley spent 15 minutes laying out specious assertions that the workers were double- and triple-counting votes, saying their actions “should shock the conscience of every red blooded Georgian” and likening what he said had happened to the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.

His comments mostly flew under the radar at the time, overshadowed by the election fraud claims made by Giuliani, who was then Trump’s personal lawyer, and by other higher-profile figures. But Cheeley’s testimony did not end up in the dustbin. He was among witnesses questioned last year by a special grand jury in Atlanta that investigated election interference by Trump and his allies, the grand jury’s forewoman, Emily Kohrs, said in an interview last month.

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The fact that Cheeley was called to appear before the special grand jury adds to the evidence that although the Atlanta investigation has focused on Trump’s biggest areas of legal exposure — calls he made to pressure local officials and his involvement in a scheme to draft bogus presidential electors — false claims made by his allies at legislative hearings have also been of significant interest. Giuliani has been told that he is among the targets who could face charges in the investigation.

“He did testify before us,” Kohrs said of Cheeley in the interview.

His appearance left such an impression that Kohrs began reciting from memory the beginning of Cheeley’s remarks at the state Senate hearing. Asked if his testimony to the special grand jury had been credible, she said, “I’m going to tell you that Cheeley was not one that I’m going to forget.”

Cheeley did not return calls for comment for this article, and he was not present when a reporter visited his office on Wednesday in the Atlanta suburb of Alpharetta. The fact that he testified before the special grand jury was not previously known.

In an interview in January, he remained steadfast in his belief that President Joe Biden had not won the election fairly. “If we lose confidence in the integrity of the elections, we won’t have a country much longer,” he said at the time.

Cheeley, who is little known outside Georgia, has a long track record as a plaintiff’s attorney and has been involved in lawsuits brought against Ford, General Motors and other automakers. More recently, his legal work has delved deeply into politics. He is a lead lawyer on one of the last pro-Trump election lawsuits that is still standing, an effort to review tens of thousands of 2020 ballots that are being kept in a Fulton County warehouse.

He has also represented one of the fake electors who tried to circumvent Biden’s narrow victory in Georgia. And he was a lawyer for David Perdue, a Republican former U.S. senator, during Perdue’s unsuccessful run for governor last year.

Cheeley appeared at the state Senate hearing on Dec. 30, 2020, the last of three legislative hearings that month about the election at which Giuliani appeared in person or remotely. In each of the hearings, Giuliani and other Trump allies laid out a broad array of baseless allegations that the election had been stolen.

John Eastman, another Trump lawyer, for example, erroneously claimed at one of the hearings that as many as 66,000 “underaged individuals” were allowed to register in Georgia. A review by The New York Times found only about a dozen Georgians on the 2020 voter rolls who were listed in state records as having been 16 at the time, but even those cases appeared most likely to be data-entry errors.

“We talked a lot about December and things that happened in the Georgia legislature,” Kohrs said of the special grand jury’s deliberations.

Kohrs, who gave a brief flurry of interviews last month but has not publicly commented since then, said the special grand jury had recommended indicting at least a dozen people. Its recommendations were delivered in a final report in January, most of which remains sealed. The report is now in the hands of Fani Willis, district attorney for the Atlanta area, who has been leading the investigation for the past two years.

Willis will make her own decisions about whom, if anyone, she will seek to indict, and will then need to go before a regular grand jury to secure those indictments.

Georgia has laws against making false statements in official settings. Those who testified falsely before the legislature “may also face liability under Georgia’s conspiracy to commit election fraud statute,” said Norman Eisen, who served as special counsel to the House Judiciary Committee during the first Trump impeachment, and who co-wrote a report by the Brookings Institution, a left-leaning research organization in Washington, examining the Georgia case.

Conspiracy charges could be considered for Trump allies who spoke at hearings and other official events, “to the extent their statements and other conduct were part of the larger Trump-led scheme to interfere in the election in the state,” Eisen said. Willis has also, according to interviews and court records, weighed the possibility of bringing racketeering charges, which could be broadly applied.

After hearing from a number of nonpartisan elections experts, as well as witnesses such as Cheeley who believe the election was stolen, grand jurors unanimously found that there was no evidence of significant vote fraud in Georgia in the 2020 election, according to a portion of their final report that was publicly released.

Surveillance footage from State Farm Arena after the 2020 contest shows some election workers running ballots through scanners more than once, leading Cheeley to claim at the December 2020 hearing that the workers were double- and triple-counting votes from Atlanta, a Democratic stronghold. “One man, one vote, just went out the window at the State Farm Arena,” he told the lawmakers, while talking over video clips.

But Georgia’s Republican leaders, including Gov. Brian Kemp, have repeatedly said that there was no conspiracy to steal the election.

“The standard operating procedure on a high-capacity scanner is that if there is a misread, you take that batch, press a button, delete that batch, and take that batch and put it back in again,” said Gabriel Sterling, COO in the office of the Georgia Secretary of State, in an interview. “We also know, if there had been multiple scans, there would have been a lot more votes than there were ballots.”

As Sterling, a Republican, once put it: “It’s not like this is an ‘Ocean’s Eleven’-level scheme that was put together in the middle of the night.”

There has been no shortage of sparring over the investigation, including a number of social media posts from Trump tarring it. The vitriol is likely to grow more intense as Willis nears her decision over indictments. Last weekend, Trump hailed Republican state lawmakers for seeking new checks on the power of local district attorneys, who are elected in Georgia.

“They want to make it easier to remove and replace local rogue prosecutors who are incompetent, racist or unable to properly do their job,” he wrote on Truth Social, commending lawmakers for acting “boldly, fairly, and fast!”

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