Trump lawyer Sidney Powell Raleigh, UNC connection explored


A video deposition from Sidney Powell, former Trump campaign attorney, is shown as the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol holds a hearing at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, July 12, 2022. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)


Tuned to this week’s Jan. 6 hearings, the world watched former Trump attorney Sidney Powell give her deposition in a tiger-print blouse, swigging Diet Dr. Pepper in a fashion ripe for Internet jokes.

Her appearance recalled the conspiracy theories the Dallas attorney pushed in 2020, notably that President Donald Trump’s victory at the polls had been rigged by Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, who had been dead seven years.

But longtime Triangle residents will remember Powell grew up in Raleigh, cut her legal teeth at UNC-Chapel Hill’s law school and raised funds for a variety of charities in Asheville.

Until recently, she gave no signal that she one day would hold ideas considered too outlandish by Fox News host Tucker Carlson, even though “We literally do UFO segments,” he told The Washington Post.

Former Mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani, left, listens to Sidney Powell, both lawyers for President Donald Trump, during a news conference at the Republican National Committee headquarters, Thursday Nov. 19, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) Jacquelyn Martin AP

Some Triangle residents now struggle to reconcile the Post’s account of a homegrown attorney screaming in the Oval Office, arguing that voting machines should be seized, with the young student who in 1974 penned this poem published in the N&O:

“The wind chased the sunlight through my hair, caught it and smiled — the first leaf fell,” she wrote.

Powell attended Raleigh’s Broughton High School in the 1970s and, as the Charlotte Observer reported in 2020, never missed an episode of “Perry Mason.” At 13, she gave a piano recital at the home of Mrs. Charles G. Morehead on Wake Drive, one of Raleigh’s posher neighborhoods.

Whirlwind diploma at UNC

She ran errands for a Raleigh law firm, set on her legal path, and sped through her undergraduate studies at UNC in under two years — so quickly that The N&O published a cartoon of a whirlwind receiving a diploma. Through achieving Phi Beta Kappa status at 19, her haste raised doubts.

“To cut undergraduate education short, it seems to me, is in conflict with our basic philosophy, which is that education is a good thing,” Admissions Dean Morris Gelblum told the N&O at the time.

Sidney Powell.jpg
Sidney Powell, in a 1979 cartoon in the News & Observer

Regardless, Powell became a U.S. attorney at 23 — an age many of the youngest budding counselors are just entering law school.

She moved to Texas and her career endured, but she also kept a home in Biltmore Forest in Asheville, taking on the role as prominent fundraiser for child abuse and domestic victims, as well as an Asheville arts center.

Headlines from that period in Western North Carolina, roughly 15 years ago, show nothing of Powell’s political bent or straying toward the ideological fringes. Rather, the Asheville Citizen-Times in 2003 shows her as the head of Loaves and Fishes, which raised money for Habitat for Humanity.

But back in Texas, now in private practice, Powell would become associated with defendants in the Enron case, criticizing the government’s handling of the case in response to political pressure.

“I’ve never seen such egregious misconduct by any prosecutor,” she told a McClatchy reporter in 2008.

‘Licensed to Lie’

She would go on to write “Licensed to Lie,” alleging corruption in the U.S. Justice Department.

Then Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch said he read it “in one day,” and he chastised then Attorney General Loretta Lynch on the Senate floor.

By 2020, the New York Times questioned how Powell had found her way into Trump’s inner legal circle, though it noted her defense of Michael Flynn, the president’s national security adviser who pleaded guilty then attempted to withdraw his plea about lying to the FBI.

In that defense, the Times reported, Powell railed against the FBI as she had against federal prosecutors, gaining heavy visibility on conservative talk shows and eventually coming to Trump’s attention.

A video deposition from Sidney Powell, former Trump campaign attorney, is shown as the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol holds a hearing at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, July 12, 2022. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) J. Scott Applewhite AP

But it took only a few weeks after the 2020 election, after pushing debunked conspiracy theories, that the Trump team officially cut ties with Powell.

In March, the Texas State Bar sought to discipline her for misconduct.

Four decades removed from the Triangle, the connection to her roots remain unclear if not disconnected.

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Josh Shaffer is a general assignment reporter on the watch for “talkers,” which are stories you might discuss around a water cooler. He has worked for The News & Observer since 2004 and previously wrote a column about unusual people and places.

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