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

Fair Fight Action emerged in the days following Abrams’ narrow defeat in Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial race, after which she traveled the country imploring Democratic donors to help with her efforts to expand the right of voting. But the scale of the legal expense has drawn attention and raised questions about Lawrence-Hardy’s dual role as Abrams’ lead attorney and campaign chair in 2018 and in her unsuccessful run for the post of governor in 2022.

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

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

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

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

“We have built a massive, entrepreneurial, multi-faceted and leading voting rights juggernaut that has played well with other countries and states [organizations], [and] took advantage of every opportunity to advance our mission,” Lauren Groh-Wargo, former CEO of Fair Fight Action, said in an interview with POLITICO.

Abrams, who served as chair of the Fair Fight Action Board until she launched her final 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 were more limited in scope. Seven voters ultimately testified at the 2022 trial that they were unable to vote. Jones rejected the group’s final demands in September.

The State of Georgia spent $6 million to defend the Raffensperger Case.

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

Fair Fight spokesperson Xakota Espinoza said the legal fees for Raffensperger should not be compared to other voting rights cases – most of which have lower court costs – because the Raffensperger case involved soliciting pre-trial testimony from thousands of voters. About 3,000 voters gave affidavits about their experiences voting for the trial. The work required to document these stories, Espinoza said, was a “large part” of the higher legal costs in this case.

“We had over 3,000 voters or candidates for election who provided affidavits. So it’s legal work…identifying those voters from the initial outreach, like researching those voters…There’s a lot of due diligence involved in confirming all the facts of the obstacles they report encountering,” said Espinoza.

Some of these statements were later chosen for additional material, called voter statements, for the Fair Fight Action case. In the end, about two dozen voters testified in the Raffensperger essay.

Fair Fight Action did not appeal the federal court ruling, but said it would continue to fight voter suppression.

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

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

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

“It’s been a very active year in terms of voter protection, voter suppression, what we would consider voter suppression legislation,” Lawrence & Bundy spokesperson Finney said of 2021.

The Fair Fight Form 990 provided for 2021 also showed no donor information. For the first time in Fair Fight Action’s history, the organization has not shared the Appendix B section of its Form 990, which includes information about donations to the organization. Every two years, Fair Fight has withheld the names of donors, which it is not required to provide, but has included the dollar amounts of the donations.

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

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