Craig Holman, a campaign finance and ethics expert, has long talked to reporters on issues of money and politics and conflicts of interest. His tart quotes often waft into the digital ether without further notice.
That changed last week, when he criticized Fair Fight Action, a politically powerful voting rights group, and its founder, Stacey Abrams, who happens to be running for governor of Georgia. Mr. Holman’s boss took notice.
Last week, Politico reported that in 2019 and 2020, Fair Fight Action spent more than $22 million on a largely unsuccessful voting rights lawsuit, in which it charged that Georgia’s elections process had “serious and unconstitutional flaws.” The largest fees — $9.4 million — went to a law firm run by the campaign chairwoman for Ms. Abrams, Allegra Lawrence-Hardy.
The Abrams campaign, Fair Fight and Ms. Lawrence-Hardy denied a conflict of interest.
But Politico asked Mr. Holman, who works for Public Citizen, an advocacy group founded by Ralph Nader, about this arrangement.
“It is a very clear conflict of interest,” Mr. Holman said, because it “provides an opportunity where the friend gets particularly enriched from this litigation.”
“The outcome of that litigation,” he added, “can directly affect her campaign itself.”
The day the article appeared, an official with Fair Fight Action complained to Public Citizen, according to both groups. The next day Public Citizen retracted the statement. Our organizational position, the group wrote, is “that the contractual arrangement described in the story is normal and non-objectionable. It raises no legal or ethical concerns.”
Public Citizen then congratulated Fair Fight Action for “heroic work” in protecting the vote and stated it was “proud to partner with them.” This partnership, Public Citizen officials said, was unofficial and not financial.
Mr. Holman did not agree with the new stance.
“It is not a retracted quote,” Mr. Holman told The New York Times. “There was a disagreement between Public Citizen and myself. I stand by my quote.”
The internal dispute and the lawsuit take root in a taut and bitterly contested election.
In 2018, Ms. Abrams lost a close campaign for governor to Brian Kemp and refused to concede. She said “democracy failed Georgia” and insisted it was not “a free and fair election” and acknowledged only that Mr. Kemp recorded the win. “This is not a speech of concession because concession means to acknowledge an action is right, true or proper,” she said.
She founded Fair Fight to fight voter suppression and it filed suit, saying it would prove state officials and Mr. Kemp had trampled on voters’ rights. This case, they said, would give voice to thousands of the disenfranchised and reveal discriminatory voting barriers reminiscent of the Jim Crow era.
Disappointment lay ahead for Ms. Abrams and Fair Fight Action. U.S. District Court Judge Steve Jones — who was appointed by President Barack Obama — dismissed large sections before the trial began.
His final opinion was unsparing.
“Although Georgia’s election system is not perfect, the challenged practices violate neither the Constitution” or the Voting Rights Act, Judge Jones wrote in a 288-page opinion.
Georgia’s election laws are not “flawless,” he wrote, but “the burden on voters is relatively low” and Fair Fight Action did not provide “direct evidence of a voter who was unable to vote, experienced longer wait times, was confused about voter registration status.”
Ms. Lawrence-Hardy, whose firm is based in Atlanta, defends Fortune 100 clients and represents management in labor and employment matters. She also handles some voting rights cases. She did not respond to requests for an interview, but she and Fair Fight Action officials have pointed to gains from their lawsuit, including getting Georgia officials to reinstate 22,000 voters and to use a federal database to verify citizenship of new voters.
Mr. Holman of Public Citizen saw the problem this way: Ms. Abrams had raised tens of millions of dollars from donors across the country, which allowed Fair Fight Action to prosecute a lawsuit that could help her next run for office.
He credited Ms. Abrams, who is no longer affiliated with the group, with distancing herself from the legal case. She remained the chair of Fair Fight through the autumn of 2021 but she declined to sit in the visitor’s gallery and offered no comment during the trial. But her campaign chairwoman was another matter.
“Abrams should have taken the extra step and divorced herself from keeping this person as her chairwomen,” he said.
His boss, Robert Weissman, the president of Public Citizen, disagreed. “I think that Craig made a mistake,” he said in an interview. “Our take is that he characterized something as a conflict that is not. Hiring someone you know as your counsel is very common and not problematic.”
Jason Torchinsky, a Republican election lawyer in Washington, also defended Ms. Lawrence-Hardy. “I don’t see it,” he said of the conflict of interest. “It’s grasping at straws.”
But Mr. Torchinsky, like nearly every lawyer contacted for this article, questioned the mountainous legal bills.
“I was just stunned,” Mr. Torchinsky said. “That is a shockingly large amount of money for this sort of work.”
A. Lee Parks Jr. is an Atlanta-based lawyer who has handled voting rights and civil rights cases, including a case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court and for which he got paid $1 million in the 1990s.
“The line between a campaign and Fair Fight Action is a blurred one, and for the campaign manager to receive that kind of money is troubling,” he said.
Kathleen Clark, a professor at Washington University Law School and a legal ethicist, said it is difficult to separate the case and questions of conflict from the enormous legal bills. “There are legitimate questions about why it cost so much,” she said.
Fair Fight Action officials gave The New York Times a partial accounting of legal costs. In 2019 and 2020, the organization stated, it paid more than $22 million to four law firms. The organization offered no estimated legal costs for 2021 and 2022, a time in which the case was tried in court.
Fair Fight Action officials said that the fees were not only fair but that lawyers, including Ms. Lawrence-Bundy, “actually lost money working on this case.” Ms. Lawrence Bundy offered a discount, they said, “because she believes deeply in the cause of protecting voting rights.”
The Georgia government paid $6 million to the law firms that defended against the case. Georgia has so far witnessed record turnout in early voting in 2022.
Fair Fight Action officials said a recent unfavorable decision by the U.S. Supreme Court has made voting rights lawsuits more complicated and costlier. They conceded, however, that the Supreme Court decision in question came in 2021, after the listed fees were incurred.
Xakota Espinoza, a Fair Fight Action spokeswoman, also sent a statement to The New York Times: “It was deeply disturbing to see an attempt to diminish the qualifications of a nationally esteemed Black, woman attorney.”
No one in the Politico article criticized the legal qualifications of Ms. Lawrence-Hardy.
As for Mr. Holman, he will survive. His boss, Mr. Weissman, said the disagreement was uncomfortable but honest. “I wish I had persuaded him,” Mr. Weissman said. “I wasn’t going to order him to make a retraction he did not take to be true.”
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