An Atlanta judge says he will ensure a report from the special grand jury investigating former President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election in Georgia won’t be an “October surprise.”
Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney, in a hearing Thursday, also criticized District Attorney Fani Willis for hosting a fundraiser for a Democratic candidate running against one of the investigation’s potential targets.
“It’s a ‘What are you thinking?’ moment,” McBurney said. “The optics are horrific.”
Both statements could impact the future of the investigation into Trump and the 16 fake GOP electors who signed onto a plan to subvert the Electoral College in the presidential election.
All 16 have been notified they are now targets of the criminal investigation, and subpoenas have also been issued recently to members of Trump’s legal team overseeing the efforts in Georgia and other battleground states Trump lost. McBurney declined to quash subpoenas for 11 of the fake electors.
Thursday’s hearing turned on the efforts of one of the 16 – Georgia state Sen. Burt Jones – to disqualify Willis from any prosecution related to Jones due to Willis’ alleged conflict of interest and political bias.
Jones, a Republican, is currently running for lieutenant governor in Georgia against Democrat Charlie Bailey. Willis hosted a campaign fundraiser for Bailey last month and donated to his primary campaign earlier this year.
If Willis is not disqualified, Jones asked that any report from the special grand jury be sealed until after the November 8 election.
McBurney said it’d be very unlikely the report would come before then, promising that it would not be an “October surprise,” and that he would make sure it will not be released close to November’s election so that it’s not a conflict.
“There is no plan for a date right now, it’s not knowable,” McBurney said. “I would be shocked if there is a report before then,” he said, referring to November’s election.
The special grand jury does not have the power to issue indictments. Once its report is complete, Willis, the district attorney, would be able to take it to a regular grand jury should she choose. But McBurney, as the judge, has the say over how the report will be released.
Dispute over Willis’ fundraiser
Attorneys representing Jones argued that Willis’ political actions should disqualify her and suggested asking Georgia’s attorney general to appoint a new district attorney to oversee the case.
“I suspect given the list of good Democratic district attorneys in this state that we can find somebody who doesn’t have a conflict and hasn’t hosted a fundraiser for either one,” Jones’ attorney William Dillon argued Thursday. “Because certainly if somebody hosted a fundraiser for Senator Jones, the attorney general shouldn’t nominate that person either. Find somebody who doesn’t have a dog in the hunt. Fani Willis had a dog in this hunt.”
Counsel for Willis said in court filings that her political support for Bailey’s campaign provides no basis for disqualification nor amounts to a conflict of interest in overseeing the grand jury. And in court Thursday, Willis’ attorney stressed that the district attorney’s political actions were well within the law.
“As a legal matter, everyone can talk at cocktail parties all they want and watch the cable news station of their choosing, but no matter what, it still does not amount to a legal matter conflict under Georgia law,” Anna Green Cross argued.
McBurney said that he thought Willis’ political actions in this scenario could be “problematic.”
“Using the title of your office and having on social media that you as this political office holder are holding a fundraiser for the opponent of someone that this political office is investigating, I don’t know that it’s an actual conflict, but I use that phrase: ‘What were you thinking?’” the judge said.
The court filings on behalf of the Fulton County district attorney’s office added that Jones has been treated the same as the other fake electors who had all received similar notifications that they were targets of the investigation.
Jones is scheduled to appear before the special purpose grand jury as a witness on July 26, according to Superior Court of Fulton County court documents.