When Fulton County prosecutors huddled with lawyers for Jenna Ellis, they said the former Trump campaign lawyer could resolve her case by pleading guilty to being part of a racketeering conspiracy to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election in Georgia.
“That was about a three-second conversation,” Frank Hogue, one of Ellis’s attorneys, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in an exclusive interview. “Long enough to say, ‘No, we’re not doing RICO.’”
But over the course of about three days, a more palatable offer came into focus. Hogue and his wife and co-counsel, Laura, met with prosecutors at the Fulton District Attorney’s downtown office on Oct. 23 and had struck a deal by mid-afternoon. Because Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee was unavailable, Ellis and her team waited until the following morning to appear in court.
Momentum for Ellis’ plea agreement to a single felony count was sparked by the surprise guilty pleas of two other lawyers indicted in the case — Sidney Powell and Kenneth Chesebro — just ahead of the start of their speedy trial, according to Hogue in an interview with the AJC’s award-winning legal podcast, Breakdown.
“I think what really accelerated it was Powell and Chesebro falling as they did, one right after the other,” Hogue said, declining to say whether prosecutors or the defense reached out first. “It looked like timing was of the essence for us.”
Ellis pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting false statements and writings, a felony that carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison. She was sentenced under the First Offender Act to five years probation, which could end after three years with good behavior. Ellis agreed to cooperate with prosecutors going forward, making her a potential star witness against former President Donald Trump and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, whom she worked closely with in the weeks following the 2020 election.
Hogue said a priority during negotiations with the DA’s office was to ensure that Ellis could keep her law license — or at least not close the door to the possibility. Prosecutors clarified that Ellis didn’t commit a crime of “moral turpitude,” which is conduct contrary to justice, honesty or morality. In some states, attorneys can lose their law licenses if convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude where the underlying conduct relates to the practice of law.
Asked if Giuliani, who is charged with RICO and 12 other counts, should be worried, Hogue said, “I think he should be.”
But not necessarily because of Ellis, Hogue said. “I think there’s enough for Mayor Giuliani to worry about that wouldn’t have anything to do with Jenna Ellis. I mean, she wouldn’t be a help to him, I don’t think, if she was to be called as a witness. But I think his troubles extend far beyond her.”
The 39-year-old Ellis read aloud her apology to the citizens of Georgia during her plea hearing. Wiping away tears, Ellis said she relied on lawyers with more years of experience to provide her with reliable information to use while speaking to the media and state legislators – information she said she should have checked.
“In the frenetic pace of attempting to raise challenges to the election in several states, including Georgia, I failed to do my due diligence,” she said. “I believe in and I value election integrity. If I knew then what I know now, I would have declined to represent Donald Trump in these post-election challenges. I look back on this whole experience with deep remorse for those failures of mine.”
It was Ellis’s choice to read aloud her apology, Hogue said, noting that the mea culpas written by the three other defendants who struck plea deals — bail bondsman Scott Hall and attorneys Chesebro and Powell — remain under seal.
“She wanted to do that,” Hogue said of his client. ” … So it’s, in essence, the apology that was requested as the part of the plea, though she did not have to say anything publicly, but she chose to. And I thought it was a good move. It was the right thing to do.”
In September, on her American Family Radio show, Ellis said she would not be voting for Trump. She has become a vocal backer of his primary rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
“Why I have chosen to distance is because of that frankly malignant narcissistic tendency to simply say that he’s never done anything wrong,” she said of Trump.
Hogue said he has mixed feelings about the resolution of Ellis’s case with the plea agreement.
“It’s a good deal,” he said. “To get out of it with five years probation, terminate in three, which I’m sure it will for her and the restitution and the other conditions of probation, none of it’s onerous for her. She’s already back in Florida and resuming her life and doesn’t have to face any of this anymore. So for her, my feeling is it’s a good result.”
But Hogue, who is based in Macon and with his wife defended Greg McMichael in the Ahmaud Arbery murder case, said he would have liked to stay in the Fulton election interference case a while longer. Because Hogue, 68, has only five cases left as he winds down his practice, he was able to spend almost every day over the past two months researching Ellis’ case.
“It was fascinating,” he said. “So as a criminal defense lawyer, I would like to have stayed in to do some interesting legal research and some writing. … That got cut short. So mixed feelings. Good for the client, not good for the lawyer.
Hogue and his wife are liberal, anti-Trump Democrats, but they still agreed to represent one of Trump’s former lawyers.
“We took it in large part because we thought it’d be interesting,” he said. “It’s part of history. Criminal defense lawyers, you know, will represent anyone accused of anything, including trying to destroy American democracy.”