WASHINGTON — In the emerging history of how a small group of lawyers aided former President Donald J. Trump’s attempt to stay in power despite losing the 2020 election, Kenneth Chesebro has received far less attention than others like Rudolph W. Giuliani and John Eastman.
But documents show that Mr. Chesebro played a central part in developing the idea of having Trump supporters pretend to be electors from states won by Joseph R. Biden Jr., then claiming that Vice President Mike Pence had the power to cite the purported existence of rival slates to delay counting or to discard real Electoral College votes for Mr. Biden on Jan. 6, 2021.
On Wednesday, several dozen prominent legal figures submitted an ethics complaint to the Supreme Court of New York’s attorney grievance committee, calling Mr. Chesebro “the apparent mastermind behind key aspects of the fake elector ploy” and accusing him of conspiring “with Mr. Giuliani, Mr. Eastman and others to subvert our democracy.”
The request was organized by Lawyers Defending American Democracy; a similar request by the group helped lead to the suspension of Mr. Giuliani’s law license in June 2021 and to a continuing investigation by the State Bar of California into Mr. Eastman. The complaint against Mr. Chesebro did not explicitly call for him to lose his license but asked for an investigation and “appropriate sanctions.”
Adam S. Kaufmann, a lawyer for Mr. Chesebro, condemned the complaint against his client, warning that it was dangerous to attack lawyers for providing legal theories to political candidates. Drawing on a 1960 precedent involving a close vote in Hawaii, he said Mr. Chesebro was offering the Trump campaign advice for “keeping its options open” through Jan. 6 as a “contingency” in case the courts found electoral fraud in any of the swing states where Mr. Trump’s team was disputing the outcome.
The idea that Mr. Pence could delay or block the electoral vote count on Jan. 6 was a key part of the events leading to the attack on the Capitol by Trump supporters. Some of those supporters chanted “Hang Mike Pence” because the vice president — whose lawyers told him there was no legal basis for him to delay or discard the official state-certified votes for Mr. Biden — rejected Mr. Trump’s pressure to do so anyway.
On Nov. 18, 2020, Mr. Chesebro wrote the earliest known memo putting forward a proposal for having a slate of Trump supporters purport to be electors, in that case for Wisconsin. He expanded the proposal for other states, including in a letter to Mr. Giuliani on Dec. 13, 2020.
An email by a Trump campaign lawyer in Arizona on Dec. 8, 2020, cited Mr. Chesebro as having had the idea for “sending in ‘fake’ electoral votes to Pence,” even though they would not be legal because the governor had not signed them.
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The complaint filed on Wednesday characterized Mr. Chesebro as a participant and not only a supplier of theories, referring to his help with a fake electors effort in Georgia, one of the swing states Mr. Biden won. Mr. Chesebro has fought a subpoena to testify before a grand jury in Fulton County, Ga., where a prosecutor is investigating efforts to overturn the election results there.
Mr. Kaufmann said the only communication Mr. Chesebro had with anyone in Georgia regarding alternate electors was sending ballot forms to a state Republican leader.
Mr. Eastman wrote two memos laying out steps that could result in Mr. Trump being declared the winner of the election that hinged on a disputed claim about Mr. Pence and alternate “electors.” Mr. Chesebro helped edit the first, emails obtained by the Jan. 6 committee show.
The complaint says that “while Mr. Eastman and Mr. Giuliani have received more attention, the public record amply demonstrates Mr. Chesebro’s central role. As the original author of the fake elector scheme, Mr. Chesebro bears special responsibility for it and its consequences.”
In an email exchange with Mr. Eastman on Dec. 24, 2020, Mr. Chesebro also wrote that the odds of a Supreme Court intervention would “become more favorable if the justices start to fear that there will be ‘wild’ chaos on Jan. 6 unless they rule by then, either way.”
Another organization, The 65 Project, filed a similar ethics complaint against Mr. Chesebro in July. The group has filed complaints against about 55 lawyers associated with aspects of Mr. Trump’s efforts to overturn the election. There has been no public sign of action in response to its complaint about Mr. Chesebro, but its director Michael Teeter, said on Wednesday that an investigator has been assigned to it.
The new filing was distinguished by a list of high-profile legal figures who endorsed it, such as past presidents of the New York State Bar Association and of the American Bar Association, retired judges, current and former deans of major law schools, and other legal scholars and prominent lawyers.
Among them was Laurence H. Tribe, a liberal Harvard Law School professor. He said in an interview that as a law student in the mid-1980s, Mr. Chesebro had been one of his research assistants and continued to help him with volunteer litigation after graduating — including when Mr. Tribe represented Vice President Al Gore before the Supreme Court in the disputed 2000 election.
Mr. Tribe said he attended Mr. Chesebro’s wedding and once considered him a friend, but then gradually came to see him as an “ideological chameleon” who had adopted “the posture he thought would appeal to me” and “came to distrust Ken’s sense of boundaries and his moral compass.”