The Thomas More Society confirmed her relationship to the group but said she is playing no role in its election-related activities.
However, her affiliation with the organization — as well as other links between Trump’s team and the conservative group — suggest a coordinated effort to flood the nation’s courts with repetitive litigation that allows the president to claim the election results remain contested.
The first glimpse of the Amistad Project came late this summer, when the new legal outfit popped up in courts across the country, trying to stop county election officials from taking grants to bolster their operations amid the pandemic.
A lawyer who works with the group was also spotted encouraging Republican observers to challenge the absentee ballot count at Detroit’s TCF Center on Election Day.
Last month, the Amistad Project announced in a news release that the Trump campaign would join the group on “a case-by-case basis” in challenging election results across the country. The statement, which has since been taken offline, quoted Trump’s personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani calling Amistad “a partner in the fight to ensure the integrity of our elections.”
Amistad attorneys also drew up a draft complaint to file jointly with the president’s campaign in Michigan, according to a document posted on a website used by Amistad to raise money and publish its legal briefs. Ian Northon, an Amistad attorney named on the brief, told The Washington Post that there was no such joint effort and that the draft was posted by mistake.
The Thomas More Society, a Chicago-based nonprofit law firm focused on religious liberty issues, has said the Amistad Project is “dedicated to election integrity” in the public interest.
“As a tax-exempt organization, the Thomas More Society doesn’t support or endorse candidates, but when our election laws and even our constitution are under attack, we take action,” the group said in an October announcement.
Ellis is a Thomas More Society special counsel and is listed as part of the “Leadership and Advisory Board” on the website used by Amistad.
The group’s tactics have complemented the president’s legal and public relations strategy, and its work has been promoted by Trump and his influential allies in the conservative media.
Amistad’s lawsuits have asked courts to allow the Republican-controlled legislatures in battleground states to appoint presidential electors — a strategy Trump and his legal team have urged state lawmakers around the country to embrace. Amistad sought to justify the plan in a paper published Friday that railed against the conduct of election officials in “urban Democrat strongholds.”
In response to questions from The Post, Thomas More Society President Thomas Brejcha wrote in an email that Ellis “has no association or involvement with our Amistad efforts” and that the group was not “at all connected with the Trump Campaign.”
Ellis said in a statement sent via Trump’s campaign that she had “no affiliation or work with the Amistad Project” and that she had been included on the website used by the project “without my permission.” Her Thomas More Society biography was recently updated to state that she is not working with Amistad.
Tony Shaffer, a retired defense intelligence official who sits on the Trump campaign’s advisory board, appeared at an Amistad news conference in Virginia last Tuesday as the group’s “lead investigator” in its hunt for voter fraud.
A spokesman for Shaffer said the Trump campaign and the Amistad Project were “not related,” but he did not respond when asked whether Shaffer had facilitated any communication or cooperation between them.
Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the campaign’s relationship with Amistad.
Philip Hackney, a former IRS official and professor in nonprofit law at the University of Pittsburgh, said the Thomas More Society was “putting its tax-
exempt status at risk” by partnering with partisan figures while bringing election litigation.
“It certainly raises the question of whether they have engaged in a way that the IRS could find violated the law,” he said. But Hackney cautioned that tax officials would find it difficult to decisively contradict the group’s claims to be acting in the wider public interest.
In response, Brejcha called that idea “at best ludicrous,” stressing that Ellis is not involved with the group’s election work.
“These election concerns are neutral and non-partisan but obviously our labors in that vineyard may incidentally inure to the benefit of one party or another in given cases,” he stated.
“The Trump Campaign is not and has not been our ‘partner,’ in any sense of that word, although we have had some overlapping concerns about certain election integrity issues — concerns shared by many other Americans,” Brejcha added.
The small group of lawyers helping to drive the Amistad effort include a former Kansas attorney general barred from practicing law because of professional misconduct and a Minnesota attorney who has advocated policies such as restricting the number of Americans who are not Christian or Jewish.
Working in conjunction with a team of former Trump campaign data analysts, Amistad also has claimed to have shared its findings with the FBI. The Justice Department declined to comment. Attorney General William P. Barr said last week that the department has found no evidence of widespread voter fraud.
The group’s lawsuits seeking to overturn the election results have been criticized by Democrats as a zombielike project that refuses to die even as President-elect Joe Biden’s decisive win has been certified by state after state.
“What we are seeing is the death rattle of an utterly failed legal strategy by the president and his allies, and it’s just not going to work,” said Norman Eisen, a veteran Democratic attorney who is monitoring the election challenges for the bipartisan Voter Protection Project.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court late Friday declined to hear a case filed by the group, with a conservative justice on the seven-member elected panel writing that he found its lawsuit included “glaring flaws that render the petition woefully deficient.”
Justice Brian Hagedorn issued a stern rebuke to the group’s attempt to get the court to overturn the presidential election, which he termed “the most dramatic invocation of judicial power” he had ever seen.
“This is a dangerous path we are being asked to tread,” he wrote.
For Trump, the Amistad Project has served a key role in helping to keep alive his baseless claims that fraud corrupted the 2020 presidential race. The group’s efforts serve as a third front in the assault against the election results, alongside Trump’s own legal challenges and lawsuits filed by attorney Sidney Powell.
At last Tuesday’s news conference, Amistad presented two men it styled as whistleblowers, who made vague allegations about mail ballots potentially having been mishandled when they worked for Postal Service subcontractors this fall. Neither presented evidence of fraud, but Trump and his campaign posted about their allegations a dozen times on Twitter, and featured Amistad’s claims in a video that aired at Trump’s rally in Valdosta, Ga., on Saturday.
Expanding its mission
The Thomas More Society was founded in Chicago in 1997 by Brejcha, a former business lawyer who became embroiled in the abortion debate by defending on free-speech grounds antiabortion protesters who were sued by a national women’s group.
During the past two decades, the organization has joined the conservative movement’s fights against abortion, same-sex marriage and mandates for employers to provide health insurance covering contraceptives. It took in more than $6 million in contributions in 2018, according to its latest available tax return.
In an email, Brejcha said the group recently amended its bylaws to add work related to “election integrity” to its mission, concerned that state and local officials were using the pandemic to violate religious freedom and other constitutional protections.
In August this year, it launched the Amistad Project under the leadership of Phillip Kline, a former Kansas attorney general who is now a professor at Liberty University, a conservative Christian college in Lynchburg, Va., led until this year by Trump ally Jerry Falwell Jr.
Kline was previously represented by the Thomas More Society when he tried to overturn the indefinite suspension of his law license by the Kansas Supreme Court, which ruled in 2013 that Kline violated rules governing lawyers’ conduct while pursuing investigations of abortion providers as a prosecutor.
A spokeswoman for Kline said he was too busy to talk. He did not respond to numerous requests for comment.
The website Got-Freedom.org, which promotes Amistad, features a series of online videos hosted by Kline’s daughter, Liberty graduate Jacqueline Timmer. In them, she recycles false claims made by Trump, including that the abrupt additions of votes from major cities to state counts on election night were actually “dumps” of fake ballots. Timmer did not respond to a request for comment.
Until Thanksgiving, the website used by Amistad listed as “partner organizations” two offshoots of the Job Creators Network, a conservative advocacy group that has received funding from major Trump donors, including the billionaire Home Depot founder Bernie Marcus. Its logos were removed from the site after The Post made inquiries.
Elaine Parker, a senior Job Creators Network official, said that the organization had not provided any funding to either the Amistad Project or the Thomas More Society, and that its logos should not have been used on the website.
As the election approached, Amistad embarked on a legal campaign aimed at blocking grants to election authorities from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, a nonprofit working to boost voter turnout, whose donors include Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan.
Claiming the center was trying to increase turnout only in Democratic strongholds, Amistad argued that it was part of the nation’s “dark history of voter suppression” and filed federal lawsuits across the country claiming that it was illegal.
The suits were filed on behalf of purported grass-roots groups with names such as the Pennsylvania Voters Alliance and the Wisconsin Voters Alliance, as well as similar incarnations in Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, South Carolina and Texas.
Most of the groups were not officially incorporated and had little or no public presence beyond the legal action. None of the lawsuits succeeded, one being rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Amistad was represented in the lawsuits by Erick G. Kaardal, a Minnesota-based Thomas More counsel, who over the past decade worked on election lawsuits for a group in his home state called the Minnesota Voters Alliance. In 2018, Kaardal and the group won a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that a state law banning political clothing at polling places violated the First Amendment.
Kaardal, who did not respond to an interview request, is now representing Amistad in its challenges of the election in Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin. He has also co-authored a series of self-published books advocating a “Christian neopopulist” agenda and endorsing the president’s assault on the media and other institutions.
“We must engage in an unrelenting attack on naive secular culture, the establishment and its politics,” Kaardal and his co-
author wrote in a 2013 book. They proposed changing the Constitution to prohibit any immigration policy that “threatens the Christian cultural heritage of the United Sovereign States by allowing the portion of the population practicing non-Jewish or non-Christian religion to exceed 10% of the citizenry.” Kaardal’s proposal was first reported by the Zephyrus of Edina, Minn.
Kaardal also previously represented the rapper Kanye West this year as West tried unsuccessfully to get on Wisconsin’s presidential ballot, court records show. West’s effort, which was backed by GOP operatives in at least five states, was widely seen as a bid to draw minority support from Biden.
A link to Trump
As it prepared its legal campaign against election authorities this summer, the Thomas More Society announced Ellis as a special counsel at the organization, providing it with a link to Trump’s campaign.
While Ellis, a 36-year-old Colorado native, bills herself as a constitutional lawyer, the bulk of her litigation experience has been as a junior prosecutor and a criminal defense lawyer. She is also a fellow at a Liberty University think tank in which Kline is also involved.
Brejcha told The Post that Ellis had “brought clients” to the Thomas More Society in Los Angeles and Oregon.
In August, Ellis joined a Thomas More legal team representing a Los Angeles megachurch pastor who violated pandemic prohibitions on indoor services, court records show. In a court filing that asked for permission to join the case, Ellis noted that she was a “private counsel to the President of the United States.”
Since Election Day, Ellis has risen to national prominence as part of what she terms an “elite strike force” of lawyers contesting Trump’s loss. She has promoted baseless theories about voter fraud alongside Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney, at news conferences and public meetings with state legislators. But she has not converted her allegations into legal briefs or appearances in court, where making false statements could have serious consequences.
Ellis’s registration with Colorado’s Supreme Court lists her address not at a law office but at the Leesburg, Va., headquarters of ProActive Communications, a public relations company led by veteran Republican operative Mark Serrano.
ProActive handles media for the Amistad Project. Last month, it also issued statements on behalf of two Detroit-area Republican officials who sought to rescind their vote to certify the election results in Wayne County.
Amistad lawyers including Tim Griffin, an adjunct professor at Liberty University, were engaged with the Republican officials as they prepared affidavits to rescind their votes, according to people familiar with the events.
William Hartmann, one of the Wayne County Republicans who sought to rescind his support for certification of the county’s vote, said he chose Thomas More Society lawyers to help draft his affidavit because “they are a non-partisan organization.”
Griffin declined to comment on his involvement with the Wayne County officials, referring questions to Serrano and ProActive, which did not respond to requests for comment.
ProActive has received more than $2.4 million from Trump’s reelection campaign for communications consulting and video production, campaign finance reports show.
Separately, Ellis has been paid more than $172,000 by Trump’s campaign, the filings show.
Ellis said in a statement that she had not received “any Trump campaign funds paid to ProActive.”
Trump asked Brad Parscale, then his campaign manager, to hire Ellis on a monthly retainer last year after being impressed by how well she defended him in a TV appearance that he saw, according to a person familiar with the events.
After joining Trump’s team, Ellis flew with the president on Air Force One and indulged demands from him that some other White House and campaign attorneys judged as unwise, such as filing defamation lawsuits against major news organizations.
“The president would call her when the other lawyers would tell him no,” a senior administration official said.
During the campaign, she was not involved in the campaign’s legal strategy meetings, but she had direct access to the president and was regularly angling to secure TV appearances, according to people familiar with her role. After Election Day, Ellis told other lawyers she and Giuliani were in charge, they said.
Two officials said Ellis provided the president with false evidence of voter fraud during the approach to the election and encouraged his politically damaging rhetoric against the integrity of mail ballots. A rambling 46-minute speech about the election that Trump filmed in the White House last week was “a Jenna production,” one of the officials said, adding that communications staffers and other offices were not involved.
An adviser who frequently speaks with Trump said that during conversations with the president, Ellis has exaggerated the importance of the public-hearing-style meetings that she has held with Giuliani, giving him a false sense that they could actually help to overturn the election result.
“She’s willing to say anything. Even as Rudy comes up with legal theories that are not able to be executed, she will think of a way to talk about it on television,” said an official who was involved in the president’s legal effort until recently.
Ellis declined to comment on her conversations with the president.
A flurry of court activity
Amistad was active on the ground in battleground states during the days around the election, filing emergency lawsuits over the security of ballot drop boxes, requesting to review security footage of the drop boxes and sending monitors to observe votes being counted. Griffin, the Amistad attorney and Liberty adjunct professor, was at Detroit’s TCF Center on Election Day, where he was advising Republicans on how to lodge challenges against ballots.
“We want all votes to be counted and want serious challenges recognized,” Griffin said as GOP activists approached him with questions.
After Trump’s defeat, Amistad filed a flurry of legal complaints in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. (On Monday, the group voluntarily dismissed its suit challenging the results in Arizona.)
The project has tried to bolster its lawsuits with legal statements prepared by Matt Braynard, a veteran of Trump’s 2016 campaign, who heads a separate Virginia-based organization named the Voter Integrity Fund, which has spent recent weeks analyzing voter data in search of fraud.
Kline wrote in a tweet last month that Amistad “retained Matt Braynard and team after Nov 3 to develop data analysis to cultivate as evidence to support election integrity lawsuits in battleground states.”
Braynard — whose team includes the federal government’s chief information security officer, who said he took vacation time to work on the project — quickly raised more than $670,000 last month for his initiative through crowdfunding. In Amistad’s post-election legal actions in Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin, Braynard has disclosed to each court that he was being paid a flat fee of $40,000 to serve as an expert witness.
In an email, Braynard declined to comment on how the fees would be used. He said any leftover money raised by his group would be offered back to donors or used to fund “a right-wing voter registration and anti-voter fraud organization.”
Braynard’s court filings present statistical analyses based on samples of voters surveyed by his team. He claims the findings indicate that thousands of voters were sent mail ballots despite not requesting them and that thousands more voted despite no longer being residents.
Amistad’s lawsuit that was dismissed in Wisconsin argued that election clerks violated state laws in how they accepted mail-in ballots — the same claim the Trump campaign made in a separate lawsuit that the Wisconsin Supreme Court declined to hear last week.
Writing for a four-justice majority, Hagedorn cast doubt on Braynard’s analysis, saying the group’s petition rested “almost entirely on the unsworn expert report of a former campaign employee that offers statistical estimates based on call center samples and social media research.”
Emma Brown and Devlin Barrett contributed to this report.