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CASEY: Legal advocacy group eying ethics charges against Reps. Cline and Griffith

The new organization is pursing the law licenses of attorneys who helped former President Donald Trump propagate the fiction that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. Oddly, at this time they not going after Del. Wren Williams, who has claimed he served as “President Donald J. Trump’s Deputy Legal Counsel in Wisconsin.”

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There’s a new legal advocacy organization targeting lawyers who helped ex-president Donald Trump perpetuate election-fraud claims following the 2020 presidential election.

Led by some legal-industry heavyweights, The 65 Project is going after those attorneys’ law licenses. And at least two are familiar faces in Western Virginia: Reps. Ben Cline, R-Botetourt, and Morgan Griffith, R-Salem.

Griffith, who serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, was a state delegate and lawyer in private practice until his election to Congress in 2010. Cline, who also served in Richmond, is a former assistant state prosecutor who worked in private practice until 2018, when he won election to succeed former congressman Bob Goodlatte.

Both are also members of the House Freedom Caucus, a group of far-right Republicans on Capitol Hill whose members include Reps. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio; Paul Gosar, R-Arizona, Louie Gohmert, R-Texas (who’s retiring); Matt Gaetz, R-Florida, and Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Georgia.

“We are considering filing a bar complaint against any elected official who joined the Texas lawsuit who is also an active member of the bar, and that includes Reps. Griffith and Cline,” said Michael Teter, The 65 Project’s managing director. He’s an attorney and law professor in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Filed Dec. 9, 2020, the Texas case was a last-ditch attempt to overturn the election before the Electoral College cast its ballots. It was bought by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, and joined by attorneys general from at least 16 other states. The Trump legal team and a total of 126 Republican House members also signed onto it.

It sought to overturn the 2020 election results in Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, all of which were won by President Joe Biden. Texas argued that procedural voting changes in those states prior to the election were illegal and the results had harmed Texas.

The U.S. Supreme Court dismissed the lawsuit Dec. 11, 2020, ruling that Texas had no right to sue. Three days later, on Dec. 14, 2020, electors in all 50 states met to cast their ballots for their presidential victors.

The 65 Project takes its name from the number of lawsuits filed by the Trump legal team or its supporters in the wake of the 2020 election. All were tossed out of court, some by federal judges who’d been appointed by Trump.

Although the campaign of frivolous legal actions revealed no evidence of widespread fraud or election irregularities, it helped give legs to sentiments that later exploded into attempted insurrection in Washington less than a month later, on Jan. 6, 2021.

Wednesday morning, I contacted spokesmen for both Cline and Griffith to seek reaction to the The 65 Project’s announcement. I got no reply by my 4 p.m. deadline.

Some of the folks behind The 65 Project include people with strong ties to Democrats, such as former senator Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, and David Brock, who founded the liberal media watchdog group, Media Matters for America.

Also on the group’s advisory board are Christine Durham, a former chief justice of the Utah Supreme Court; Roberta Ramo, first female president of the American Bar Association and Paul Rosenzweig, a former Department of Homeland Security official in the last Bush administration and a member of the conservative legal group, The Federalist Society.

Cline and Griffith aren’t the only Virginia lawyers The 65 Group is targeting, Teter said. When I asked for that list, he said he would provide it in the future.

“Right now, I can say that it looks like Virginia lawyers participated in litigation in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, and Wisconsin. At least one of those lawyers has already had a bar complaint filed against her in Michigan — Emily Newman,” Teter said.

Newman, of Northern Virginia, worked on a legal team with Trump attorney Sidney Powell. Both have already been sanctioned for bringing a frivolous Trump legal action contesting Michigan’s 2020 election.

Right now they’re among the 111 lawyers in 26 states who are in The 65 Project’s crosshairs. But that list is also curious for who’s not on it — such as Del. Wren Williams, R-Patrick.

Williams is a lawyer in Stuart and a freshman state delegate in Richmond. In the 2021 GOP primary, he successfully unseated former Republican delegate Charles Poindexter, who’d said he didn’t suspect widespread election fraud in the presidential election.

By contrast, Williams bragged repeatedly during the campaign that he’d volunteered on the Trump legal team fighting the Wisconsin election outcome. He did it in his campaign literature, too.

“During the 2020 election Wren traveled the country to help the Republican National Committee (RNC) and President Trump fight for election integrity,” one flyer noted. “In the courtroom, Wren was part of the legal team in Wisconsin arguing for fair and transparent ballot collection and counting.”

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On CNN, Williams gave an interview ballyhooing his service as “one of Donald Trump’s legal attorneys in the 2020 election,” adding, “that is a national role that I played.”

In a statement published by the conservative online news website “National File,” Williams said his title was “President Donald J. Trump’s Deputy Legal Counsel in Wisconsin.”

But Teter told me that The 65 Project has never heard of Williams.

“Mr. Williams is not on the list of Virginia attorneys who we have having appeared on court documents for President Trump or in any of the litigation,” Teter said.

“If he participated, he did so behind the scenes. Our efforts will continue in seeking to undercover those who played less active roles and, if the situation warrants, filing bar complaints against those individuals, as well.”

Tuesday, I sent Williams a list of questions seeking to clarify the service he’d said he performed for the Trump legal team in Wisconsin.

One was how Williams traveled there, another was how long he stayed, and I also asked where he stayed and who covered his travel and lodging expenses. And I posed these questions:

On which lawsuits challenging the 2020 Wisconsin presidential election does your name appear?

Who were the attorneys you worked alongside during the Wisconsin election challenge efforts?

Were you admitted pro hac vice to practice in Wisconsin? If so, what was the date of that court order? And what’s the name of the judge who signed it?

(In most cases, a Virginia-licensed attorney would have to seek formal permission from a Wisconsin court to practice law there, unless the attorney was also licensed in Wisconsin. Williams is not listed by the state bar of Wisconsin as a licensed attorney there.)

Wednesday, I received Williams’ 783-word response, which answered exactly none of the above questions.

The first 483 words were about election-integrity legislation he sponsored in Richmond after his 2021 election.

Near the end of the statement, Williams wrote: “I came to understand that election integrity is a serious issue after the November 2020 election, when I volunteered to assist President Donald J. Trump’s legal team in the Wisconsin recount.”

The team found more than 200,000 ballots had been improperly counted or cast, the statement added. But the courts disagreed.

“Our case against these improper activities was escalated to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, where it was kicked on a technicality by one vote,” Williams added.

“It is essential in any free republic that elections be fair, secure, and trustworthy, and that our elections be governed strictly by the laws passed by our elected officials. I maintain that this was not the case in the Wisconsin 2020 General Election.”

At no place in Wednesday statement does Williams ever say he was physically in Wisconsin while he was volunteering. That might explain why The 65 Project has never heard of Williams, or seen his fingerprints on any Trump election-lawsuit papers.

Soon, Teter added, The 65 Project “will be assembling teams of lawyers in the jurisdictions where these lawyers are practicing and will be filing bar complaints in waves.

“We are also putting together a working group of preeminent lawyers to help draft model rules of professional conduct that relate directly to attorneys engaging in efforts to overturn democracy and using the courts as a tool for political propaganda.”

Lawyers who wish to volunteer can contact the group at info@the65project.com, Teter said.

Contact metro columnist Dan Casey at 981-3423 or dan.casey@roanoke.com.

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Dan Casey knows a little bit about a lot of things but not a heck of a lot about most things. That doesn't keep him from writing about them, however. So keep him honest!

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