Forced to testify before a grand jury investigating former President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election in Georgia, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) got some significant financial help from some of his U.S. Senate friends.
Nine of Graham’s Senate colleagues collectively donated $78,000 through their respective leadership PACs to the Lindsey Graham Legal Expense Trust Fund during December, according to a Raw Story analysis of Federal Election Commission records.
Sens. John Barasso (R-WY), James Lankford (R-OK), Mike Crapo (R-ID), John Hoeven (R-ND), John Boozman and Steve Daines (R-MT) all contributed $10,000 to Graham’s legal defense fund through their leadership PACs from Dec. 5 through Dec. 7.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) contributed $8,000, while Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) contributed $5,000 each through their leadership PACs.
The donations — $10,000 is the maximum allowable amount per year under Senate ethics guidelines under the Office from the Office of Governmental Ethics — followed Graham’s Nov. 22 appearance before a special grand jury authorized by the Fulton County Superior Court at the request of District Attorney Fani Willis.
Graham’s office did not respond to messages about donations to his legal defense fund or legal expenses arising from his unsuccessful attempt to fight a subpoena. None of the senators who donated to Graham’s legal defense fund through their leadership PACs responded to questions from Raw Story.
There is no indication that the senator, who is the ranking Republican member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, is a target of the investigation or could himself face criminal charges.
‘NECESSARY AND MATERIAL WITNESS’
Graham said at the time that he testified before the grand jury for more than two hours and answered all questions.
But leading up to his testimony, Graham mounted an aggressive defense — an apparently costly one, too.
In late November, Graham’s campaign committee made a payment of more than $268,000 to the South Carolina law firm Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough for “legal services,” according to FEC records.
The Graham campaign has utilized Nelson Mullins since at least 2011, according to federal records, but up until November, the campaign’s highest single payment to the law firm was $45,824, in 2021.
Graham’s legal team includes two lawyers from Nelson Mullins’ Charleston office and three lawyers from the Jones Day law firm, including former White House counsel Donald F. McGahn II, who filed an emergency application to stay a lower-court decision with the Supreme Court. (McGahn is also a former FEC chairman.)
After the federal court in Atlanta and the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals shot down Graham’s effort to fight the subpoena, the Jones Day team appealed for intervention from the U.S. Supreme Court, which denied the application, clearing the way for Graham’s testimony.
Don McGahn, pictured here in 2018 when he served as then-President Donald Trump's White House counsel, is now doing legal work for Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Graham’s testimony centered on two phone calls to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in November 2020, in which the US senator pressed the state official on signature verification for absentee ballots in Fulton County. The state’s most populous county, Fulton covers about 90 percent of Atlanta, and as a jurisdiction rich in Democratic votes, it became the focal point of baseless claims of voter fraud by Trump and his allies.
The special purpose grand jury, which a Fulton County superior court judge created in January 2022, concluded its work last month.
Willis reportedly told Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney during a Jan. 24 hearing that “decisions are imminent” as to whether to indict Trump and others. Charges could include solicitation to commit election fraud, making false statements and Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, commonly known as RICO, according to a report by the nonprofit legal watchdog Citizens for Responsibility & Ethics in Washington.
Under Georgia law, special purpose grand juries can be impaneled to review specific matters involving complex facts and circumstances and can take longer to investigate than the period of time allotted in a normal grand jury term. Special purpose grand juries do not have the authority to return an indictment, but may recommend criminal prosecution. Willis’ recent statement indicating Trump could soon face indictment was made during the district attorney’s request that the special grand jury’s report remain sealed.
“We want to make sure that everyone is treated fairly, and we think for future defendants to be treated fairly it’s not appropriate at this time to have this report released,” Willis said, according to CNN.
McBurney in July identified Graham as “a necessary and material witness to the special purpose grand jury.”
Under Senate ethics guidelines established under the Office of Governmental Ethics, legal defense trusts must be approved by the Select Committee on Ethics “for the purpose of paying for legal proceedings ‘relating to or arising by virtue of service in or to the Senate,’” according to a primer provided by the nonprofit consumer advocacy group Public Citizen.
Two days after the Graham campaign made a $268,228 payment to Nelson Mullins, the Hawkeye PAC contributed $5,000 to the Lindsey Graham Legal Expense Trust Fund.
The Hawkeye PAC is a leadership PAC sponsored by Sen. Chuck Grassley, Graham’s colleague on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Contributions from the eight other senators followed. FEC reports filed by the respective leadership PACs list a mailing address for the Lindsey Graham Legal Expense Trust Fund that is associated with the Bowers Law Office in Columbia, S.C.
Under the arcane rules established by the Federal Election Commission, leadership PACs are financed, maintained and controlled by candidates or public officeholders, but are not considered to be authorized campaign committees.
While campaign committees allow contributions to other candidates’ campaigns, leadership PACs emerged as a vehicle for public officeholders to raise money for colleagues.
Ann Ravel, a Democrat and former FEC chairwoman who now teaches at UC Berkeley Law School, told Raw Story that public officeholders often use leadership PACs to make donations to colleagues as a means of garnering favor to obtain coveted committee appointments. Another benefit of leadership PACs, Ravel noted, is that there are almost “no constraints on how you use the money."
Bradley A. Smith, a professor at Capital University Law School in Columbus, Ohio, a Republican who is also a former FEC chair, told Raw Story it makes sense that Graham’s colleagues would use leadership PACs to support his legal defense fund because they might want to reserve their campaign funds for their own reelection efforts.
“If you want to support someone else’s legal defense fund, why use your own campaign funds?” he said. “The leadership PAC allows you to support other members. It’s a nice chit. They’ll remember you. ‘Oh, he was a nice guy. He gave me some money.’”
There could be other donors to Graham’s legal fund. But anyone who’s made a contribution to Graham’s legal defense fund since Jan. 1 may not have to publicly disclose the fact for weeks yet, per federal regulations.
‘I DIDN’T KNOW WHERE THIS WAS GOING TO LEAD’
The certificate of material witness issued by McBurney last July noted that Graham questioned Raffensperger and his staff “about reexamining certain absentee ballots cast in Georgia in order to explore the possibility of a more favorable outcome for former President Donald Trump” during a phone call in November 2020.
Attesting to Graham’s importance to the investigation, McBurney wrote that Graham “possesses unique knowledge” about the phone call and any communication with the Trump campaign or others “involved in the multi-state, coordinated efforts to influence the results of the November 2020 election in Georgia and elsewhere.”
McBurney also deemed Graham’s testimony as “essential in that it is likely to reveal additional sources of information regarding the subject of this investigation.”
Based on an interview with the Georgia secretary of state, the Washington Post reported that Raffensperger described Graham as questioning him during the phone call “about the state’s signature-matching law” and asking whether he “had the power to toss all mail ballots in counties found to have higher rates of non-matching signatures.”
The newspaper reported that Raffensperger “said he was stunned that Graham appeared to suggest that he find a way to toss legally cast ballots,” while directly quoting him as saying: “It sure looked like he was wanting to go down that road.”
Graham immediately disputed Raffensperger’s recollection of the call, telling the Post that the characterization was “ridiculous.”
“The main issue for me is: How do you protect the integrity of mail-in voting, and how does signature verification work?” he said.
During his November 2021 interview with the January 6th Committee, Raffensperger gave an account that appears to differ somewhat with the reporting by the Post a year earlier.
Asked by committee staff whether Graham said “anything about what your office or Fulton County should do if they found problems with the absentee ballots, like, what the remedy would be,” Raffensperger responded, “No.” He also said he didn’t recall whether Graham said that absentee ballots should be thrown out if errors were found.
Raffensperger told the committee that Graham suggested that credit card companies could be used for signature verification on absentee ballots. As they got into more detail, Raffensperger said that Sterling did most of the talking on behalf of the secretary of state’s office.
“He was talking about a process of using companies, and I didn’t know exactly where he was going,” Raffensperger said. “I just didn’t want to go where he was — where I thought he might want to go. I just thought it best not to call him back.”
Asked if Graham made any reference to Trump or indicated whether Trump asked him to call, Raffensperger told the committee: “I don’t recall.”
Raffensperger could not be reached for comment.
Graham has argued that his purpose for making the calls was entirely legislative. The senator’s application for review by the Supreme Court argues that he “relied on the information gained from the calls both to vote Joe Biden ‘the legitimate president of the United States’ and to cosponsor legislation to amend the Electoral Count Act.”
An order by US District Court Judge Judge Leigh Martin May last August, which was ultimately upheld by the Supreme Court, dismissed Graham’s claims that his conversation with Raffensperger and his staff was limited to legislative concerns.
“To begin, the specific activity at issue involves a senator from South Carolina making personal phone calls to state-level election officials in Georgia concerning Georgia’s election processes and the results of the state’s 2020 election,” May wrote. “On its face, such conduct is not a ‘manifestly legislative act.’
“There has been public disagreement and dispute among the calls’ participants as to the nature and meaning of Senator Graham’s statements and inquiries therein,” she added. “In fact, it has been suggested that Senator Graham was seeking to influence Secretary Raffensperger’s actions.”