Tax forms reveal steep legal fees for voting rights group founded by Stacey Abrams

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décembre 23, 2022

The voting rights organization founded by Stacey Abrams, Fair Fight Action, spent an additional $12 million in legal fees in 2021, bringing its running total to $37.7 million from 2019 through 2021 alone, according to new filings by the group.

A significant portion of the fees went to a single voting rights case that ended this September when a judge rejected the group’s final claims in a bench trial. The recently filed federal 990 form for 2021 also shows that the group paid an additional $4.4 million to the self-described boutique law firm of Abrams’ former campaign chairperson and longtime friend, Allegra Lawrence-Hardy.

Lawrence-Hardy spearheaded the filing of the voting rights case Fair Fight Action v. Raffensperger in 2018. From 2019 through 2021, the firm of Lawrence & Bundy received $13.8 million from Fair Fight Action. Lawrence & Bundy served as lead counsel in the Raffensperger case, among other legal services. Seven other firms were involved in the case. Of the firms, Lawrence & Bundy received the most money, according to the group’s federal 990 forms from 2019-2021.

Fair Fight Action emerged in the days following Abrams’ narrow loss in the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial race, after which she crisscrossed the country imploring Democratic donors to contribute to her effort to expand voting rights. But the sheer size of the outlays for legal costs have drawn attention and raised questions about Lawrence-Hardy’s dual roles as lead attorney and Abrams’ campaign chairwoman in 2018 and in her unsuccessful 2022 race for governor.

In an interview, NAACP Georgia State Conference President Gerald Griggs said he supported Fair Fight Action’s efforts in the Raffensperger case but wished the group had spent more of its resources on organizing voters.

“I do know that litigation is quite expensive,” Griggs said. “But if it wasn’t being spent on litigation, and you’re in the voting rights space, it should have been spent on direct voter contact.”

Lawrence-Hardy has previously denied any conflict of interest in her two roles. She declined to comment for this article, but her spokesperson, Karen Finney, defended the legal fees expended on the Raffensperger case as justified by its broad scope.

The latest figures, for fiscal year 2021, reflect work for the third year of the group’s four-year-long Raffensperger case. In all, Fair Fight Action, spent $47.6 million in 2021, mostly on media expenses, research and legal services from outside law firms, according to the filings. Between 2019 and 2021, Fair Fight Action raised $91.8 million and spent $87.5 million, of which 43 percent was legal fees.

“We built a massive, entrepreneurial, multifaceted, prominent voting rights juggernaut that played well with other national and state [organizations], [and] leveraged every opportunity into a way to advance our mission,” Lauren Groh-Wargo, the former CEO of Fair Fight Action, said in an interview with POLITICO.

Abrams, who was chair of the Fair Fight Action Board until she launched her most recent campaign in late 2021, did not respond to a request for comment.

Fair Fight Action did not specify what percentage of its legal fees was spent on the Raffensperger case. The case began as a broad complaint against many of Georgia’s election practices but was narrowed in 2021 in a summary judgment by federal Judge Steven C. Jones to three claims that had a more limited scope. Seven voters ultimately testified in the 2022 trial that they were unable to vote. Jones rejected the group’s final claims in September.

The state of Georgia spent $6 million defending the Raffensperger case.

Abrams, who attributed her narrow, 1.4 percent loss in 2018 to Republican Brian Kemp, to voter suppression, lost her rematch with Kemp this year by 7.5 points.

Fair Fight spokesperson Xakota Espinoza said legal expenses for Raffensperger shouldn’t be compared to other voting rights cases — most of which have lower legal costs — because the Raffensperger case involved soliciting pre-trial testimony from thousands of voters. About 3,000 voters gave sworn statements about their voting experiences for the trial. The labor needed to document those stories, Espinoza said, was a “big part” of the higher legal costs in this case.

“We had over 3,000 voters or would-be voters who provided sworn statements. So that’s legal work 
 identifying those voters from initial outreach, like doing the research on these voters
There’s a lot of due diligence involved in confirming all the facts of the barriers that they’re reporting experiencing,” Espinoza said.

Some of those statements were then chosen for additional documentation, called voter declarations, for the Fair Fight Action case. Ultimately, about two dozen voters testified in the Raffensperger trial.

Fair Fight Action did not appeal the federal court’s decision but said it would continue fighting voter suppression.

In addition to fighting the Raffensperger case, Espinoza said the group’s legal vendors in 2021 also wrote congressional reports on the state of voting in Georgia, urged Congress to pass federal voting rights legislation, provided voter protection legal training and worked with a coalition of Georgia-based organizations to support voters. She added that 2021 was a relatively low-activity year for Raffensperger as both sides awaited the judge’s ruling in the defense’s request for summary judgment.

Fair Fight Action’s most expensive work in 2021 was not related to legal fees, but media. Of the $14.8 million spent on media, $13.3 million went to the firm of AL Media.

AL Media is a political advertising and media company with offices in Chicago and Washington that has created ads not just for Fair Fight Action but also the Democratic National Committee, the senatorial reelection campaign of Raphael Warnock (D-Ga) and Jaime Harrison’s unsuccessful 2020 attempt to win a Senate seat in South Carolina, as well as Abrams’ unsuccessful 2022 gubernatorial campaign.

“It was a very active year with regard to voter protection, voter suppression, what we would consider voter suppression legislation,” said Finney, the spokesperson for Lawrence & Bundy, of 2021.

The 990 form Fair Fight provided for 2021 also did not show any donor information. For the first time in Fair Fight Action’s history, the organization did not share the Schedule B section of its 990 form, which includes information about donations to the organization. Every other year, Fair Fight has withheld donor names, which it is not required to provide, but has included the dollar amounts of donations. 

“We weren’t legally required to share it this year. We have new leadership this year. And we sent over everything that we’re legally required to share,” Espinoza said when asked why Fair Fight decided to withhold more information this year than in years past.

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