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Trump wants Fani Willis kicked off his Georgia case. A judge said a hearing ‘must occur’

A misconduct hearing targets the prosecutor leading a sprawling election subversion case against him and his allies in Fulton County, Georgia

Alex Woodward
Tuesday 13 February 2024 15:35 GMT
Fani Willis defends prosecutor on Trump case after relationship claims

A sprawling election interference case against Donald Trump is set to veer into the private and professional life of the woman leading the prosecution against him during a hearing in an Atlanta courtroom this week.

The Georgia judge overseeing the case against the former president and more than a dozen others will preside over a misconduct hearing on Thursday scrutinising allegations against Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis.

Ms Willis and prosecutor Nathan Wade could be called to testify after one of the former president’s co-defendants alleged that the attorneys financially benefited from the vast RICO case through their “personal, romantic relationship” with each other.

If stood up in court, accusations levelled against Ms Willis and the chief prosecutor she hired to lead the case could result in her disqualification.

Ms Willis and Mr Wade have already admitted to their relationship but have firmly rejected the “meritless” and “salacious” allegations as “bad-faith” attempts to see her struck off the case that Mr Trump has baselessly labelled a conspiracy against him.

In court on Monday, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee said that a hearing on the matter “must occur”.

Judge McAfee said the relationship is “no longer a matter of complete speculation,” but “what remains to be proven is the existence and extent of any financial benefit, if there even was one”.

“Because I think it’s possible that the facts alleged by the defendant could result in disqualification, I think an evidentiary hearing must occur to establish the record on those core allegations,” he said.

Now, a hearing beginning on 15 February and expected to last two days will investigate the allegations outlined by one of Mr Trump’s co-defendants. Judge McAfee has declined to immediately rule on whether to quash subpoenas for testimony from Ms Willis and others.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee hears from attorneys in a sprawling election interference case on 12 February. (Getty Images)

He appears prepared to hear testimony from at least some of the many witnesses requested by Mr Trump’s co-defendants but will wait to decide whether Ms Willis could be called to the stand.

“I don’t see how I can make that determination on the front end without live testimony subject to cross-examination,” he said. “With each one of these witnesses, I would defer the ruling until we get further into the hearing itself.”

If Mr Trump does appear at the hearing, it will be his first time attending any proceedings surrounding his Georgia criminal case since he turned himself in for arrest and had his mug shot taken for an image he now uses to sell campaign fundraising merchandise. Since that day, he has repeatedly lashed out at Ms Willis and trumpeted allegations against her and Mr Wade on his Truth Social platform.

On Thursday, Mr Trump’s attorneys will also be appearing in Manhattan criminal court for a pretrial hearing on separate criminal charges involving hush-money payments to an adult film star during his 2016 campaign – among the mountain of criminal and civil litigation facing Mr Trump as he campaigns for the presidency once again.

Ms Willis has come under heightened scrutiny in recent weeks after one of Mr Trump’s co-defendants – a GOP operative who worked on his 2020 campaign – alleged in a sensational court filing without direct evidence that she hired a prosecutor with whom she was romantically involved and that the pair were “profiting significantly from this prosecution at the expense of the taxpayers”.

The motion from Mike Roman – who is criminally charged alongside the former president, Rudy Giuliani and others with running a “criminal enterprise” to unlawfully overturn the 2020 election results in a state Mr Trump lost to Joe Biden – was later joined by the former president himself. Attorneys for Mr Trump also accused Ms Willis of defying her ethics obligations and injecting “racial animus” in the case after she spoke out against racist attacks she has endured since taking on the case.

In her filing responding to the allegations, Ms Willis argued that the court should question whether Mr Roman’s “supposition and innuendo”-loaded arguments are intended to “disqualify the prosecutor who has taken on all of the abuse to pursue justice in this case at great personal cost, only to be substituted with someone less committed to do so”.

Mr Wade’s signed affidavit in the case states that he and Ms Willis “developed a personal relationship in addition to our professional association and friendship” in 2022, a year after he was hired on the case.

He stated he has no financial interest in the case, that no funds from his hiring have been shared with Ms Willis, and that they have never shared any financial accounts, expenses or housing.

Defence attorney Ashleigh Merchant, who alleged improper relationship between Fani Willis and a special prosecutor hired to lead the case against Donald Trump and others in Georgia, speaks in court in Atlanta on 12 February. (REUTERS)

High-profile criminal defence lawyer Ashleigh Merchant, who is representing Mr Roman, has called for testimony from Terrence Bradley, Mr Wade’s former law partner. That testimony would be used to dispute those claims, she told the court on Monday.

“I will be shocked if Ms Merchant is able to support that statement,” said Anna Cross, a lawyer for the district attorney. “The evidence would be that the timeline that’s being represented is either mistaken … or simply fabricated.”

The “spectacle” of calling a witness who would say “I heard otherwise” has “little evidentiary value,” according to Ms Cross.

Ms Willis previously argued in court filings that the defence’s attempts to subpoena her, Mr Wade and other employees amounts to “harassment and disruption” in an attempt to bolster “reckless accusations” in an attempt to undermine the case altogether.

“The defence is not bringing you facts,” Ms Cross said on Monday. “The defence is not bringing you law. The defence is bringing you gossip, and the state cannot and the court should not condone that practice.”

What is the case against Trump in Georgia?

Mr Trump and more than a dozen co-defendants are criminally charged under Georgia’s anti-racketeering statute as part of a “criminal enterprise” to overturn the state’s election results in 2020. Through this criminal enterprise, the defendants allegedly pushed state officials and lawmakers to unlawfully reverse Mr Trump’s loss while directing attacks on election equipment and pressuring election workers.

They have pleaded not guilty.

Four others – including three Trump-allied attorneys who pushed spurious election challenges in the state and elsewhere – reached plea agreements with prosecutors in the case last year.

The case is separate but parallel to the federal charges facing Mr Trump for his efforts to overturn 2020 results, culminating in his failure as president to stop a mob of his supporters from breaking into the US Capitol to do it by force.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis and special prosecor Nathan Wade appear in Atlanta in August 2023. (AP)

Mr Roman, who worked for the Trump campaign in Georgia in 2020 and is now among those charged alongside him, is accused of coordinating a fake elector scheme to fraudulently certify Mr Trump’s victory in the state.

Mr Roman, like Mr Trump and the other co-defendants, is charged under the state’s RICO Act.

He also faces one count of conspiracy to impersonate a public officer; two counts of conspiracy to commit first-degree forgery; two counts of conspiracy to commit false statements and writings; and conspiracy to commit filing false documents.

What are the allegations against Fani Willis?

Mr Roman alleged in a last-minute court filing in January that the prosecutors leading the case against him “engaged in an improper, clandestine personal relationship” and “violated laws regulating the use of public monies, suffer from irreparable conflicts of interest, and have violated their oaths of office”.

The filing did not provide any concrete evidence to support the claims but cited “sources with knowledge”.

Mr Roman’s attorney Ms Merchant, who also claims to have relied on documents from Mr Wade’s divorce proceedings, alleges that Mr Wade and Ms Willis were romantically involved before his appointment as a special prosecutor in the case in late 2021.

She alleges that Ms Willis and Mr Wade traveled to California’s Napa Valley and Florida and took cruises on Norwegian and Royal Caribbean cruise lines paid with earnings they received for the work they performed on the case.

“Wade is being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to prosecute this case on her behalf,” according to the filing. “In turn, Wade is taking Willis on, and paying for vacations across the world with money he is being paid by the Fulton County taxpayers and authorized solely by Willis.”

The motion – filed on the deadline for pretrial motions to the court – asked Judge McAfee to “dismiss the indictment against Mr Roman, and disqualify Willis, Wade and their respective offices and firms from … participating in this matter any further”.

Filings from Mr Wade’s divorce proceedings show that he purchased plane tickets for himself and Ms Willis for a trip to Aruba in October 2022 and another to San Francisco in April 2023.

They had “roughly” split those travel expenses, according to Mr Wade. The court filings include receipts for airline tickets.

“No funds paid to me in compensation for my role as Special Prosecutor have been shared with or provided to District Attorney Willis,” Mr Wade said in a signed affidavit. “The District Attorney received no funds or personal financial gain from my position as Special Prosecutor.”

Donald Trump speaks to supporters in South Carolina on 11 February. (Getty Images)

In a speech to a congregation at Big Bethel AME Church in Atlanta last month, Ms Willis suggested that the attacks against her since taking the case were motivated by racism.

She defended her hiring of three special prosecutors in the case, as is her “right to do,” and noted that she “paid them all the same hourly rate”.

“They only attack one,” she said. “I hired one white woman, a good personal friend and a great lawyer, a superstar, I tell you. I hired one white man – brilliant – my friend and a great lawyer. And I hired one Black man, another superstar.”

Both Ms Willis and Mr Wade are Black.

According to Mr Trump’s lawyers, her remarks on 14 January “constitute a glaring, flagrant, and calculated effort to foment racial bias into this case by publicly denouncing the defendants for somehow daring to question her decision to hire a Black man (without also mentioning that she is alleged to have had a workplace affair with the same man) to be a special prosecutor.”

In her formal response to the allegations, a 176-page court filing from Ms Willis argued that the “private lives of the attorney participants in this trial was not a topic of discussion”.

“A conflicted prosecutor presents a risk that he or she will disregard public interest for personal benefit,” according to the filing.

“No circumstances alleged by any of these Defendants even approach that threshold, let alone cross it. And the accusations brought to this Court by these Defendants on the flimsiest of factual support may cause a reasonable person to wonder [if] the Defendants’ motivation is more tactical than legal.”

This story was published on 12 February and has been updated with developments

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