Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis acknowledged in a court filing Friday that she had a “personal relationship” with a special prosecutor she hired for Georgia’s election interference case against former President Donald Trump, but argued that she did not. there are grounds to dismiss the case or remove her. of the prosecution.
Willis hired special prosecutor Nathan Wade in November 2021 to assist in his investigation into whether the former Republican president and others broke any laws in trying to overturn his loss in the 2020 presidential election in Georgia. Since Trump and 18 others were indicted in August, Wade has led the team of lawyers Willis assembled to prosecute the case.
Among the acts listed in the indictment was a Jan. 2, 2021, phone call in which Trump urged fellow Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to help “find” the 11,780 votes needed to reverse his election loss. before Democrat Joe Biden. Trump pleaded not guilty and his lawyers said he had the right to challenge the election results.
The filing was the first time either Willis or Wade directly addressed the relationship allegations in the nearly four weeks since they first surfaced in a filing by a defendant in the election case. In an affidavit accompanying the filing, Wade said that in 2022, he and the district attorney had developed a personal relationship in addition to their “professional partnership and friendship.”
But he also said he had never lived with Willis or shared a financial account or household expenses with her. He said none of the funds he was paid as part of her work were shared with Willis, in an attempt to undermine defense attorneys’ claims of a conflict of interest.
Wade described himself and Willis as “both financially independent professionals; personal expenses or travel were divided approximately equally between us.”
“At times,” Wade said, “I have made and purchased trips for District Attorney Willis and myself with my personal funds. At other times, District Attorney Willis has made and purchased trips for her and me with her funds. personal”.
“I have no financial interest in the outcome of the 2020 election interference case or the conviction of any defendant,” he wrote.
Friday’s filing by Willis’ team came in response to a motion filed last month by defense attorney Ashleigh Merchant, who represents Trump’s co-defendant Michael Roman. The motion alleged that Willis and Wade had an inappropriate romantic relationship that created a conflict of interest. She said Willis personally benefited from the case, saying she had paid Wade more than $650,000 for his work and then benefited when Wade used his earnings to pay for vacations the two took together.
Roman asked the judge to dismiss the case and prohibit Willis and Wade and their offices from continuing to prosecute the case. Trump and at least one other co-defendant, Georgia attorney Robert Cheeley, have filed motions to join Roman’s effort to dismiss the indictment and remove Willis from the case.
Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee, who is presiding over the election case, has set a hearing for Feb. 15 on Roman’s motion. Willis and Wade are among a dozen witnesses Merchant has subpoenaed to testify at that hearing, and Friday’s filing says the district attorney plans to ask McAfee to dismiss those subpoenas.
Friday’s filing asks McAfee to dismiss the motions without a hearing, saying they are “without merit.”
Steve Sadow, Trump’s lead attorney in the Georgia case, said Willis is asking the judge “to turn a blind eye to his alleged personal and financial misconduct” and says his only goal is to stop the hearing on Sept. 15. February. Although he admitted to the relationship, Sadow said, “it does not provide full transparency or the necessary financial details.”
Merchant filed an initial response to the prosecution’s filing on Friday. She argued that a hearing is needed because Roman has the right to cross-examine and test the prosecution’s claims. She listed questions she would ask Wade that suggest she believes her relationship with Willis began earlier than he claimed and that the couple had lived together at certain times.
The Willis team’s filing argues that Willis has no financial or personal conflict of interest that would justify removing her or her office from the case. The document calls the allegations “lewd” and says they “gained the media attention for which they were designed.”
Anthony Michael Kreis, a law professor at Georgia State University who has been following the case, said this was “the strongest response he could have given,” noting that the filing acknowledged the relationship, explained the timing and addressed the financial problems.
“I just have to wonder why they didn’t respond sooner,” he said. “As a legal matter, I think it’s done. As a political matter, it still seems a little complicated.”
Trump and other critics of Willis have seized on allegations about the relationship between Willis and Wade, using them to try to sow doubt about the legitimacy of the case. The former president also accused Willis (and prosecutors in three other criminal cases against him) of engaging in political attacks as he appears poised to become the Republican presidential nominee in 2024.
Willis, an elected Democrat, is running for re-election this year. The personal relationship with Wade appears to contradict a statement he made while running to become district attorney in 2020. During an appearance on public access television, he said: “I certainly won’t elect people to go out who work under me, leave me alone say that.”
Roman’s motion questions Wade’s qualifications to participate in a complex prosecution under Georgia’s racketeering law.
The district attorney’s response fiercely defended Wade’s qualifications to lead the prosecution team, saying that he “has long distinguished himself as an exceptionally talented litigator with significant trial experience.”
Exhibits attached to the filing include photographs of awards Wade has received over the years for his legal work. Willis also attached Facebook posts from Merchant in 2016 supporting Wade’s campaign to become a Cobb County Superior Court judge. In a post, Merchant described Wade as “ethical” and said he has “demonstrated his ability to be fair and impartial.”
During a speech at a historic black church in Atlanta about a week after Roman’s motion was introduced, Willis suggested that the questioning of Wade’s qualifications and her decision to hire him was rooted in racism.
Joining Roman’s motion, Trump attorney Steve Sadow accused her of inappropriately injecting racism into the case. Willis’ filing in response says her public comments were “within all legal and ethical rules and guidelines.”
Sadow rejected that, saying, “Apparently, the DA believes she can make out-of-court public statements about race, this case and the defendants whenever she wants, and the court has no power to punish her with disqualification.”
Associated Press writers Eric Tucker in Washington and Alanna Durkin Richer in Boston contributed.