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Georgia judge moves forward with hearing on Fani Willis misconduct claims

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis speaks at a news conference on Aug. 14, 2023, in Atlanta with Nathan Wade, right, who she hired to lead her office's prosecution of former President Donald Trump.KENNY HOLSTON/NYT

An Atlanta-area judge overseeing the election interference case against former president Donald Trump confirmed on Monday he will hold a hearing over allegations that Fulton County District Attorney Fani T. Willis (D) engaged in an improper personal relationship with the lead prosecutor on the case.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee’s decision to move forward with an evidentiary hearing on Thursday is a blow to Willis, who had asked the judge to cancel the hearing and reject motions from Trump and other co-defendants who are seeking to disqualify her over her claims she had an improper relationship with special prosecutor Nathan Wade.

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McAfee said an actual conflict or appearance of one is indeed grounds for disqualifying Willis from the case. However, he also said he would not entertain testimony at the hearing related to Wade’s alleged lack of qualifications for his job, noting that it is at the discretion of the district attorney to hire anyone with “a heartbeat and a bar card.”

“I think it’s clear that disqualification can occur if evidence is produced demonstrating an actual conflict or the appearance of one,” McAfee said, noting that Willis’s admission of a relationship is already on record, so the primary remaining question is whether she benefited financially from Wade’s hiring.

McAfee’s order comes more than a month after Mike Roman, a former Trump campaign staffer and one of the former president’s co-defendants, claimed in a court filing that Willis and Wade had been involved in an “improper, clandestine personal relationship” that has financially benefited them both.

Roman claimed Willis may have broken the law by hiring Wade, an outside attorney with scant experience prosecuting criminal cases, and then allowing him to pay for “vacations across the world” with her that was unrelated to their work on the case. Roman’s filing, which offered no proof to substantiate the sensational claims, called for the prosecutors to be disqualified and for the charges against him to be dismissed.

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In a Feb. 2 filing, Willis acknowledged a personal relationship with Wade but denied it had tainted the proceedings. She also strongly denied any claims of misconduct, calling the accusations “meritless” and “salacious,” and argued personal relationships between lawyers “do not constitute impermissible conflicts of interest.”

Willis’s filing included a sworn affidavit from Wade, who said there was “no personal relationship” between him and Willis “prior to or at the time” he was appointed to the case in November 2021. Wade’s affidavit said that in 2022 he and Willis “developed a personal relationship in addition to our professional association and friendship.” The filing did not say whether that personal relationship is ongoing.

The allegations against Wade and Willis have been underpinned by a bitter divorce battle between Wade and his estranged wife. Bank records made public as part of Wade’s divorce proceedings show Wade purchased plane tickets for himself and Willis on two occasions - a trip to Aruba purchased in October 2022 on American Airlines, and a second trip purchased in April 2023 to San Francisco on Delta Air Lines.

Wade said in his affidavit that he and Willis had split travel expenses “equally.” An attached exhibit included receipts for airline tickets for a trip to Miami in December 2022 that Willis bought for herself and Wade. He insisted that Willis had not benefited from his salary as a special prosecutor.

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

At McAfee’s request, Ashleigh Merchant, Roman’s attorney, quickly responded, urging the judge to move forward with an evidentiary hearing. She accused Willis and Wade of trying to “escape accountability” in a case where “freedom and lives are at stake.” She subpoenaed Willis, Wade and nearly a dozen associates - among them people she claimed would dispute Wade’s claim that his relationship with Willis began after he was appointed to the case.

Roman’s motion to disqualify Willis and her office was later joined by Trump and several other co-defendants, including Atlanta-area attorney Bob Cheeley, former Justice Department official Jeffrey Clark, former Georgia Republican Party chair David Shafer and Cathleen Latham, a 2020 Trump elector. All filed motions pressing McAfee to hold an evidentiary hearing.

Willis has moved to quash several of Roman’s witness subpoenas - including those issued to herself, Wade, several staff members of the district attorney’s office and Terrance Bradley, Wade’s former law partner who also previously represented Wade in his ongoing divorce case.

The filing called Roman’s subpoenas a “belated… effort to support reckless accusations” against Willis. Willis’s request - which could require its own evidentiary hearing - described Roman’s subpoenas as “harassment and disruption” and an attempt to “disrupt and delay” the racketeering case.

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By issuing so many subpoenas, Willis wrote in a Feb. 2 filing, Merchant “seemingly anticipates a hearing that would last days, garner more breathless media coverage, and intrude even further into the personal lives of the prosecution team in an effort to embarrass and harass the District Attorney personally. This is not an example of zealous advocacy, nor is it a good faith effort to develop a record on a disputed legal issue - it is a ticket to the circus.”

Anna Cross, arguing for Willis’s office on Monday, said none of those subpoenaed to testify on Thursday have knowledge or facts that should be considered in the case.

“The defense is not bringing you facts,” she said. “The defense is not bringing you law. The defense is bringing you gossip. And the state cannot and the court should not condone that practice.”

The judge’s decision prolongs a scandal that threatens to derail the high-profile case against Trump, one of four criminal prosecutions facing the former president and current candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.

Willis is also facing other headwinds that threaten her control of the case and her position - for which she is up for reelection later this year. A Georgia Senate committee with subpoena power is investigating the allegations, and a member of the Fulton County governing board has suggested he might also launch an investigation. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) has referred the matter to the state ethics commission for potential sanctions and has also requested that Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp or Attorney General Chris Carr, both Republicans, launch a criminal investigation into Willis.

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