Exclusive: Georgia probe into Trump examines chaplain's role in election meddling
ATLANTA, Sept 8 (Reuters) - Georgia election worker Ruby Freeman didn’t recognize the man who banged on her door. Terrified, she called 911. She had reason to fear.
By the morning of Dec. 15, 2020, when she saw the stranger's red sedan parked in her driveway, she had received hundreds of threats from supporters of former U.S. President Donald Trump. Two weeks earlier, Trump’s campaign had falsely accused Freeman and her daughter, Wandrea “Shaye” Moss, of pulling fake ballots from suitcases at Atlanta's State Farm Arena to rig the 2020 election for Democrat Joe Biden.
The man had already passed a message to Freeman through a neighbor: Freeman's time was running out, he said, and he could help her and her daughter. When a police officer responded and questioned the man outside Freeman’s home, he introduced himself as Steve Lee, a police chaplain from Illinois.
Now Lee is under scrutiny in a criminal investigation into alleged election interference by Trump and his allies in Georgia, according to a source with direct knowledge of the probe.
Lee played a central role in a failed effort to pressure Freeman to admit to an election fraud that never occurred, according to a Reuters examination of police body camera footage and court documents, as well as interviews with key participants. After being rebuffed by Freeman, Lee contacted Harrison Floyd, who had run outreach to black voters for Trump’s 2020 campaign. Floyd arranged another visit to Freeman on Jan. 4, 2021, this time from Chicago publicist Trevian Kutti, who threatened Freeman with jail unless she provided information on election fraud, Reuters reported last December.
Lee’s identity has not been previously reported. The investigation by the Fulton County District Attorney’s office is examining Lee’s coordination with Floyd and Kutti as Trump’s campaign was desperately seeking evidence of vote-rigging to justify overturning his election loss. On Jan. 6, two days after Kutti’s visit to Freeman, Congress certified Biden’s victory, despite the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol that day by Trump supporters trying to halt the proceedings.
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis said in a Sept. 2 court filing that she was seeking testimony from Floyd, who detailed his involvement in pursuing Freeman in a lengthy interview with Reuters last December. The prosecutor’s filing noted that Floyd told Reuters he had arranged Kutti’s meeting with Freeman at the request of an unidentified man, whom Floyd described as a chaplain with federal law enforcement connections.
Reuters identified that chaplain as Lee through previously unreported police records and body camera footage showing police speaking with Lee outside Freeman’s home. Lee formerly worked as a policeman in California and later served as a chaplain comforting officers and others after the Sept. 11 attacks in New York. A New York City Police Department spokesperson confirmed Lee’s work with its officers.
As Reuters reported on Dec. 10, Freeman told police that Kutti tried to get her to falsely implicate herself in voting fraud. Shedding new light on the incident, the district attorney’s court filing last week said Kutti warned Freeman that “an armed squad” of federal officers would approach her and her family within 48 hours and that Kutti had access to “very high-profile people that can make particular things happen … in order to defend yourself and your family.”
A source with direct knowledge of the Georgia investigation said Lee, Kutti and Floyd are all “subjects of interest” of the criminal probe. Willis has previously sought testimony from Kutti.
No charges have been filed in the case. A spokesperson for Willis’ office did not respond to a request for comment.
Lee, in a brief interview at his home in Montgomery, Illinois, did not dispute that he visited Freeman but declined to discuss why or whether someone had sent him.
Floyd and Kutti did not respond to requests for comment. They have previously denied they tried to pressure Freeman to falsely confess to election fraud, saying they were trying to help her.
‘I’M NOT INTERESTED’
Freeman was so shaken by Lee’s attempts to contact her that she called 911 three times on Dec. 15, 2020, the morning he parked in her driveway. Two Cobb County Police officers responded, one of whom interviewed Lee outside her home. Lee said he wanted to speak with Freeman and produced his Illinois driver’s license, according to previously unreported body camera footage obtained through a public-records request.
“I'm a pastor, and I'm also working with some folks who are trying to help Ruby out,” Lee told the officer, without identifying the people. “And also get to some truth of what's going on.”
He described himself as “prior law enforcement” and a “sergeant out in California.” He said he had “some pro bono service for her if she's interested.”
“I'm not interested,” she told the officer in a separate interview captured on bodycam, saying she had done nothing wrong. “I have a pastor.”
The same man had shown up at her house the night before, Freeman reported. She wasn’t home. Lee spoke with a neighbor, and that’s when Lee passed the message saying he could help Freeman. She told police Lee had said “he knew it was going to get worse. And he wanted to help me before it got too late.”
Freeman, who describes herself as a devout Christian, said she didn't recognize the man and wanted to report him for harassment. The officer replied that he would inform Lee she didn’t want to speak with him.
The chaplain then turned to Floyd for help. In the December interview, Floyd did not identify the chaplain by name but said his visit was captured on police bodycam video, which Reuters reviewed. The clergyman “was sent to talk to her,” Floyd added. He declined to say who sent him, but said the chaplain had been contacted by “connections that he had in law enforcement.” The chaplain reached out to Floyd because he believed Freeman would not trust a white stranger, Floyd said. Freeman and Floyd are both Black.
Floyd also said people “involved with the Trump campaign” contacted him and said they had heard Freeman wanted immunity.
Freeman has repeatedly said she is innocent and therefore never sought any immunity deal. Prosecutors never considered offering her immunity because they had no reason to believe she was involved in fraud, according to a former Department of Justice official with direct knowledge of the matter.
Nevertheless, Floyd said he received calls from attorneys in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan who said a confession from Freeman would help their litigation efforts. At the time, Trump and his allies went to court in those states seeking to overturn his election loss.
Floyd and Lee joined several phone calls with attorneys who were “interested in offering immunity,” Floyd said. He declined to identify the lawyers. Floyd said he agreed to arrange the meeting with Freeman after speaking with Lee “multiple times at length” and reviewing the chaplain’s law enforcement credentials.
Georgia election officials quickly debunked the baseless accusations against Freeman. The oft-repeated false claims started with the Trump campaign telling Georgia lawmakers at a Dec. 3, 2020 hearing that a surveillance video of Freeman and her daughter handling ballots at State Farm Arena amounted to shocking evidence of fraud. In fact, state officials said, the video showed normal ballot processing.
‘GROUND ZERO’ CHAPLAIN
Lee had a long career in law enforcement before he starting focusing on his ministry as a chaplain. He was a sergeant in the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office, where he worked from 1980 to 1987. According to his online biography, he also served as a special agent for the U.S. Navy’s law-enforcement arm, now known as the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. In 1996, he founded Peace Officer Ministries Inc, a Christian organization that serves officers and their families, and served as its executive director until January 2010, according to archived pages of the organization’s website.
From 2016 to 2018, Lee led a “Quick Response Team,” sponsored by an Illinois Lutheran church, that provided chaplaincy support to law enforcement in crisis situations. On the team’s Twitter account, he posted a field report in February 2017 that included a photograph of himself outside Trump Tower. He said he “briefed a Trump transition team advisor on a volunteer federal law enforcement chaplaincy proposal.” He said Trump had “issued a clarion call to make America great again and drain the swamp,” urging support for “these noble goals.”
In February 2018, his response team scaled down operations because of an opportunity he had found “to work more directly with the federal government” during the Trump administration, Lee wrote in a post to the organization’s supporters. Reuters could not confirm what work, if any, Lee did for the Trump administration.
In an October 2021 speech, Lee endorsed James Marter, a pro-Trump Republican candidate for U.S. Congress from Illinois. In supporting Marter, who later lost the Republican primary, Lee said he had always avoided politics but felt compelled to get involved because "we're facing the extinction of America."
Billed by Marter’s campaign as the “Ground Zero” chaplain, Lee told the audience he provided religious support to New York City police and other emergency responders for about a month after the Sept. 11 attacks.
At the time, Bernard Kerik was New York City police commissioner and Rudy Giuliani was mayor. Both were deeply involved at the Ground Zero site, where the twin towers of the World Trade Center were destroyed. And both men emerged after the 2020 election as prominent figures pushing Trump’s baseless claims of voter fraud in Fulton County.
Giuliani did not respond to a request for comment, and Reuters could not independently verify whether he knew Lee or knew of his work after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Kerik said he did not recall meeting Lee, either after the attacks or since the 2020 election.
"Never met him to my knowledge," he said. "I don't recall a Lee related to Georgia's elections."
At a December hearing with Georgia lawmakers, Giuliani falsely accused Freeman and Moss of “stealing votes” and engaging in “surreptitious illegal activity.” Last month, Willis’ office notified Giuliani that he was a target of her investigation.
After the election, Giuliani headed a legal team working on Trump’s behalf to overturn the election results. Kerik worked as the team's lead investigator, according to his personal website. A “Strategic Communications Plan,” developed by the team to build public support for Trump’s election challenges, called for drawing public attention to the baseless charges against Freeman and her daughter. Kerik later turned over the document to the congressional committee probing the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot.
‘SAVE OUR REPUBLIC’
After speaking with the chaplain, Floyd said he enlisted the help of Kutti, a former publicist for hip-hop and R&B singers. Kutti had been in Georgia in 2020 to help with Republican campaign efforts, including briefly managing the unsuccessful congressional campaign of a Trump ally.
On Dec. 29, a few days before meeting Freeman, Kutti urged Trump in a social media post to “unleash every military and Executive power you have to save our Republic.” She ended the post with the hashtag #byanymeansnecessary.
The stakes were high. An admission of fraud by Freeman, an election worker in the state’s biggest county, could have cast doubt over Trump’s loss in Georgia and given Trump ammunition to halt Congress from certifying Biden’s win on Jan. 6. If Freeman had committed fraud and wanted immunity, Floyd told Reuters, “that's really important to get to the right people before an election is certified.”
Trump himself singled out Freeman, by name, 18 times in a now-infamous call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger on Jan. 2, 2021, in which he pressed Georgia officials to alter the state’s results based on his bogus fraud claims. He falsely attacked the 62-year-old temp worker as a “professional vote scammer,” a “hustler” and a “known political operative” who “stuffed the ballot boxes.”
Floyd said Kutti agreed to visit Freeman. On the evening of Jan. 4, Kutti showed up at Freeman’s home with another man, a Georgia representative of the campaign coalition Black Voices for Trump. Freeman has said she didn’t know the visitors supported Trump when they came to her door. As Reuters previously reported, Freeman was wary but agreed to talk to Kutti at the police station.
Kutti tried to get Freeman to falsely implicate herself in voter fraud that night, Freeman told police. A Cobb County Police report identified Kutti as an “alleged Trump supporter who attempted to get Ms. Freeman to make false claims about the ballot counting.” When the two met at the police station, Kutti told Freeman: “You are a loose end for a party that needs to tidy up,” police body camera footage shows.
Kutti said Floyd had “authoritative powers” to get Freeman “protection,” according to the footage. She then dialed in Floyd, and the conversation continued for about an hour. At one point, Floyd asked Freeman whether she had handled “honest ballots” on election night. During the discussion, “Freeman was pressured to reveal information under the threat of incarceration if she did not comply,” Willis said in her Sept. 2 court filing.
Freeman said in an interview that she was offended by Kutti’s offer of protection and rejected it.
Before meeting with Freeman, Kutti told a police officer that the election worker "was in danger and had 48 hours to speak with her so that she could get ahead of the issue” and that “unknown subjects were going to be at” Freeman’s residence, according to a police report.
On Jan. 5, the day after Kutti met with Freeman, a group of pro-Trump protesters descended on Freeman’s home in a quiet residential neighborhood, according to a 911 call reporting the gathering and interviews with two neighbors.
Five or six vehicles carrying Trump supporters, some with signs and flags, came to Freeman’s house, saying they were there because they were “upset with Ruby Freeman,” according to a neighbor who reported the incident to Cobb County police. Neighbors said they confronted the protestors, who agreed to move down the street.
Freeman had left her home by the time of the afternoon protest. She fled after being warned of potential danger by an agent from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and remained in hiding for two months afterwards, Freeman said in an interview.
Willis’ court filing said Floyd is a “necessary and material” witness to her investigation. “The witness possesses unique knowledge” of Kutti’s conversations with Freeman, Willis wrote, and of the communications involved in setting up the meeting - including those with the Trump campaign and others “involved in the multi-state, coordinated efforts to influence the results of the November 2020 election in Georgia.”
In December 2021, Reuters first reported the details of the ordeal Moss and Freeman endured after the 2020 election. The women described threats of lynching, racial slurs and alarming visits by strangers. Freeman had been a temporary election worker in Fulton County; daughter Moss was full-time. Both ultimately quit because of the threats.
In June, Freeman testified before the congressional committee investigating the U.S. Capitol riot. She said she remained rattled by the campaign of intimidation.
“There is nowhere I feel safe,” she said. “Nowhere.”
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