Pastor Stephen Lee hasn’t had a very good week.
“I can tell you that he’s nervous,” Lee’s attorney, David Shestokas, told The Daily Beast in an exclusive interview.
“Anybody charged with a crime that serious—a five-year mandatory minimum, and a possible 20-year maximum—is not going to sleep easy at night, regardless of whatever comfort and counseling I’m able to offer,” Shestokas said, referring to the penalty for violating Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. “But even under those circumstances, I certainly have no guarantees for him.”
On Monday, a Fulton County, Georgia grand jury indicted Lee, a police chaplain living in the Chicago area, alongside Donald Trump and 17 others for a laundry list of election-related crimes related to the 2020 election. Lee, 70, is facing additional counts on top of the RICO charge, including conspiracy to solicit false statements and writings, criminal attempt to influence witnesses, and influencing witnesses.
Lee is accused of trying to pressure a temporary election worker, Ruby Freeman, to confess to a slew of bogus assertions by Trump, Rudy Giuliani, and other MAGA-world luminaries, that Freeman and her daughter, who are Black, surreptitiously introduced suitcases stuffed with thousands of fake ballots into the counting process to help Joe Biden. Trump referenced Freeman over and over during his infamous Jan. 2, 2021 phone call with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a fellow Republican, in which he exhorted Raffensperger to “find” enough local votes to undo Biden’s win. Freeman was “a professional vote scammer and hustler,” Trump lied, calling the 60-something Freeman a “known political operative.”
Amidst this backdrop of mis-and disinformation, Freeman and her daughter were subjected to a brutal harassment campaign by irate Trump supporters, and a terrified Freeman was soon run out of her house. (State and federal investigators ultimately deemed the allegations against Freeman “false and unsubstantiated,” finding that the notorious “suitcases” were, in fact, ordinary ballot containers.)
Despite Lee having been the subject of intense media focus related to Trump’s coup attempt, and knowing that Georgia authorities had him under a microscope, his indictment still took them both by complete surprise, Shestokas said.
“Neither the reverend nor I were ever contacted by anyone from Fulton County,” he claimed. “We were quite surprised by the reverend’s indictment since Fulton County had not even been able to make a case in an Illinois court that Rev. Lee was a material witness. With that in mind, we were quite astounded to learn of his indictment as a defendant.”
On Dec. 3, 2020, former New York City mayor and Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani testified before legislators at the Georgia statehouse, claiming to expose what he maintained was vote-rigging by Freeman, a $16-an-hour temp, and daughter Wandrea “Shaye” Moss, who was then a full-time Georgia elections worker making $36,000 a year.
Unveiling a video clip for the lawmakers, Guiliani presented security footage of Freeman and Moss processing absentee ballots at Atlanta’s State Farm Arena.
“How can they say there’s no fraud?” Giuliani complained, disingenuously. “Look at that woman. Look at her taking those ballots out. Look at them scurrying around with the ballots,” he said. “Nobody in the room. Hiding around. They look like they’re passing out dope, not just ballots. It is quite clear they’re stealing votes.”
By all reputable accounts, two weren’t doing anything of the sort. Still, the MAGA machine pushed its own “alternative facts” to avenge Trump’s loss.
By Dec. 4, Freeman had been on the receiving end of threats that spanned some 300 emails, 75 texts, numerous intimidating Facebook posts, and countless alarming phone calls, according to a police report obtained by Reuters.
“It’s scary because they’re saying stuff like, ‘We’re coming to get you. We are coming to get you,’” Freeman told the cops.
On Dec. 15, 2020, Lee’s burgundy sedan suddenly appeared in Freeman’s driveway. Lee had already knocked on Freeman’s front door in an attempt to speak with her, but she hadn’t answered. He had shown up the night before, when Freeman happened to be out. So Lee left a note with a neighbor the night before, telling Freeman that time was “running out” and that he wanted to help her. Panicked, Freeman called 911.
When police arrived to investigate, bodycam footage shows Lee explaining, “I’m a pastor, and I’m also working with some folks who are trying to help Ruby out. And also get to some truth of what’s going on.” He said he had been a “sergeant out in California,” and offered his unspecified services to Freeman pro bono, “if she’s interested.”
The officers asked Freeman if she wished to speak with Lee.
“I’m not interested,” she said. “I have a pastor.”
Lee was indeed at Freeman’s house, Shestokas told The Daily Beast. But he maintains Lee hoped his “unusual background… might be of some service to this woman that was under siege.”
“That sounds really wild,” Shestokas admitted, quickly adding, “Unless you see the backstory of Pastor Lee.”
“The stuff that the rest of the world [sees] on the surface, if all they see is he knocked on the door, they think that he’s involved in election interference,” Shestokas continued. “OK, but if you look at his history, it’s one of service, one of unification, if you want. That’s what’s in his mind.”
Shestokas insists Lee’s admittedly “goofy” overtures to Freeman were not part of a wide-ranging criminal enterprise, but rather, a personal humanitarian gesture, of sorts. According to Shestokas, Lee, a Trump acolyte from the very beginning who worked as a police officer in California before becoming a man of the cloth, showed up at Freeman’s door of his own volition, simply because he had seen her situation go “viral,” and wanted to help her weather what he figured was a difficult period. Lee had taken it upon himself to travel to the Ground Zero wreckage in 2001 so he could minister to those affected, and did the same thing for survivors of the Columbine school shooting in 1999, the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas, and various other disasters, Stestokas said, providing The Daily Beast with an assortment of newspaper clippings about his client’s various past adventures.
“If you consider Reverend Lee’s history of traveling to unusual settings, and offering this combination of law enforcement and pastoral experience to assist people that are under stress, it’s not out of character,” Shestokas went on. “And it may not be something you do, or I do—I wouldn’t—but I don’t have the same history that he has… You know, so many of the big stories that are headlines around the country in the last 30 years, he’s been there. He’s kind of the Forrest Gump of crises in America. He’s always been there in some way, shape, or form.”
Yet, prosecutors say Lee’s story doesn’t hold up, in light of what he allegedly did next.
Believing that Freeman refused to speak with him because he is white, Lee then reached out to Harrison Floyd, the Chicago-based leader of a group called Black Voices for Trump, and asked for help, according to the Fulton County indictment. In turn, Floyd, who is also among those indicted in Fulton County, arranged for Trevian Kutti, a former publicist for hip-hop star and Chicago native Kanye West, to travel to Freeman’s home on Jan. 4, 2021.
There, Kutti, who is herself indicted on the same charges as Floyd, introduced herself to Freeman without providing much further detail about who sent her. All Kutti would say was that she was there on behalf of a “high-profile individual,” and floated a dubious offer of immunity from prosecution if Freeman would admit to voter fraud. If she didn’t, Freeman would be thrown in jail, Kutti allegedly said. (Floyd told Reuters later that month that he sent Kutti in his stead because he was busy, declining to identify Lee beyond a vague reference to a chaplain with “connections” to law enforcement.)
On Jan. 6, after the U.S. Capitol was sacked by Trump supporters seeking to block the certification of Joe Biden’s electoral victory, the FBI advised Freeman to leave home for her own safety.
Floyd and Kutti did not respond to requests for comment from The Daily Beast this week. Shestokas declined to offer any details on the relationship between Lee and the pair, or how they first linked up.
“They apparently had some conversations,” Shestokas told The Daily Beast. “He was trying to learn stuff, and trying to get the backstory and different things. He talked to a lot of people, but he doesn’t have, really, any kind of personal relationship with anybody.”
Lee’s admittedly ill-advised outreach to Freeman, as well as to Floyd, led directly to the charges against him, the Fulton County indictment shows. He “knowingly engage[d] in misleading conduct toward… Freeman, by purporting to offer her help, and with intent to inﬂuence her testimony in an ofﬁcial proceeding,” the indictment states. “This was an act of racketeering activity… and an overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy.”
Lee’s solicitation of Floyd’s assistance also constituted an “overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy,” according to the indictment.
Nevertheless, Shestokas said he doesn’t think Lee has any regrets about his involvement with Trump and Co.
Shestokas made a special effort to argue that Lee operated independently, and claimed—contrary to what prosecutors say they can prove in court—that he was not part of a broader conspiracy to overturn Georgia’s vote.
“He has no, if you will, close relationship, or close ties, with anybody on that list,” Shestokas said. “He’s never met President Trump. He doesn’t know Rudy Giuliani.”
Lee is also not prepared, at this time, to work with prosecutors in a bid to avoid potentially spending the next two decades in prison, according to Shestokas, who said, “There is nothing in terms of cooperation… What is there? You know, what’s there to cooperate with?”
Last Sunday, Lee preached about the Book of Job to his flock at the Living Word Lutheran Church in suburban Orland Park, Illinois. A Living Word official told Religion News Service on Tuesday that Lee worked there in an “emeritus” capacity but is no longer the pastor. On Wednesday, Stestokas told The Daily Beast that Lee will be back at the pulpit as usual this coming Sunday. (“[S]hould you reference Rev. Lee, it is appropriate that he be referred to as Rev. Lee,” Shestokas said in an email before agreeing to speak on the record. “He is an ordained minister and the principal pastor of an active congregation in suburban Chicago.”)
Shestokas said Lee has discussed the situation with some of the church elders, and said he will be joining Lee at services this weekend “so I can explain to the congregation what’s going on.”
“I will talk specifically about… the counts in the indictment that deal directly with Pastor Lee,” Shestokas said. “I will explain to them the concepts of Georgia RICO, in general… I think they’re entitled to have some idea of what it is that their spiritual mentor’s being accused of.”
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis has proposed a March 4, 2024 trial date for Trump, Lee, Floyd, Kutti, Giuliani, and their co-defendants.