New Fulton DA balances Trump probe, massive local workload

In addition to nearly 10,000 open cases, Fulton County's newly elected District Attorney Fani Willis has paralegals working full time to process cases left behind by the previous team in the office downtown Atlanta on Thursday, Feb 18, 2021.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
In addition to nearly 10,000 open cases, Fulton County's newly elected District Attorney Fani Willis has paralegals working full time to process cases left behind by the previous team in the office downtown Atlanta on Thursday, Feb 18, 2021. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

The Fulton County District Attorney’s office was in disarray when Fani Willis arrived the first week of January.

Her six-term predecessor and former boss, Paul Howard, had refused to speak to her during the transition. Staffers were on edge. And then there were the hundreds of brown file boxes.

Stuffed with paperwork from upwards of 10,000 cases, some originating as far back as the 1970s, they were stacked 7 feet and 8 feet high, lining the hallways and blocking doorways — a physical manifestation of the mountains of work that awaited the veteran prosecutor trying to turn around what had become a dysfunctional workplace.

Little did Willis know the storm that was about to hit. In a recorded phone call on Jan. 2, then-President Donald Trump leaned on Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to help “find” votes to reverse his election defeat.

Once Willis determined she had jurisdiction — and that other officers who did, including the state attorney general and U.S. attorney for Georgia’s northern district, might have conflicts — she announced her staff would investigate whether Trump or his allies, including U.S. Sen Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), illegally pressured Raffensperger.

The investigation puts Willis at the center of national debates over presidential power and election meddling. Even her admirers wonder if her years of courtroom experience have prepared her for the legal, personal and professional minefield that comes with probing a former president with a vast personal fortune and tens of millions of devoted followers.

“It’s kind of like the dog who caught the car. You’ve got to be really careful that you don’t grab that bumper and get (dragged) all over the place,” said Bob Rubin, a Decatur criminal defense attorney who taught Willis while she was a student at Emory Law School.

Willis says she is up to the task.

”I take no pleasure in this, and that’s what I want people to understand,” she said in an interview this week. “We have a lot of work to do here. I’m pushing people real hard.”

Fulton County's newly elected District Attorney Fani Willis speaks during an interview in a conference room at the Fulton County Courthouse in downtown Atlanta on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Fulton County's newly elected District Attorney Fani Willis speaks during an interview in a conference room at the Fulton County Courthouse in downtown Atlanta on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

As Willis has entered the national spotlight, though, she’s aggravated some local constituents irked by her push to recuse her office from cases involving Atlanta police officers: the fatal Rayshard Brooks shooting and the tasing of two Black college students last summer.

“The people of Fulton County elected her to show leadership and be someone that would stand up to the police and prosecute these cases where there was evidence of abuse,” said Atlanta attorney Sam Starks.

The ‘streetfighter’

The 49-year-old mother of two college-age daughters is no stranger to messy legal battles. Willis made her name as the lead prosecutor on the Atlanta Public Schools cheating trial that started in 2014, securing convictions for nearly a dozen former educators on racketeering charges.

Some critics felt the teachers, accused of correcting standardized test answers, were treated unfairly. Willis stands by her handling of the case.

Rubin, who defended one of the convicted educators, described Willis as a “streetfighter” in the courtroom.

“She was not afraid to use every weapon to her advantage, whether it was the law or a peculiar perspective of the law,” said Rubin, who still believes his client, a former elementary school principal, got a “raw deal.” “In the courtroom, we went at it pretty hard against each other, nose-to-nose, but really, I liked her. At the end of the day it wasn’t personal.”

Willis left the DA’s office in 2018 and embarked on an unsuccessful bid to be a Fulton County Superior Court judge. Two years later, she announced her candidacy for DA, saying the office under Howard’s leadership was “broken.” She cited heavy turnover among assistant DAs and a series of “distractions” linked to her former boss.

Three past or present female employees sued Howard while he was in office, alleging harassment or discrimination. Days before the runoff, Howard agreed to a $6,500 fine for failing to disclose his role as CEO of two non-profits, one of which netted him $195,000 in city grant money. The state ethics commission accused him of 14 violations, which he admitted to in the consent agreement.

The runoff wasn’t even close, with Willis winning nearly three votes to every one Howard received. Six months later, Howard still hasn’t spoken to her, though he did leave behind a photo of the two of them taken after one of her promotions.

“I actually thought that was kind of nice,” Willis said. “Sarcastic, but nice.”

Fulton County's newly elected District Attorney Fani Willis shows the photo left behind by former DA Paul Howard, who was once her boss, in a conference room at the Fulton County Courthouse in downtown Atlanta on Thursday, Feb 18, 2021. The former DA and his team took all the furniture and left behind boxes of unprocessed cases and 10,000 open cases dating back to 2017.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Fulton County's newly elected District Attorney Fani Willis shows the photo left behind by former DA Paul Howard, who was once her boss, in a conference room at the Fulton County Courthouse in downtown Atlanta on Thursday, Feb 18, 2021. The former DA and his team took all the furniture and left behind boxes of unprocessed cases and 10,000 open cases dating back to 2017. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

The courtroom is a setting where she’s felt comfortable ever since she was young. On Saturday mornings she would tag along with her father, an attorney and former Black Panther, as he defended clients who had been arrested while partying the evening before.

Her skills as a prosecutor are the stuff of legend in the DA’s office, said Brian C. Ross, a personal injury attorney who worked under Willis for about two years in the complex trial division and considers her a mentor.

He recalled Willis taking over a carjacking case on the very eve of trial.

“She probably got it at about 5 p.m.,” said Ross. “She started picking the jury the next morning at 9. It was a very violent crime with heavy repercussions.”

Willis won. The jury reached its verdict “in like 25 minutes,” Ross said.

“She was not afraid to use every weapon to her advantage, whether it was the law or a peculiar perspective of the law."

- Criminal defense attorney Bob Rubin regarding Fani Willis' courtroom skills

Her trademark tenacity dates back to her college days, said Felicia R. Stewart, who attended Howard University and Emory Law with Willis.

“She took her education very seriously. She took her competition very seriously,” said Stewart, now chair of the division of social and cultural studies at Morehouse College. “She did not like people to waste her time.”

Willis remains tethered to the office, sleeping only a few hours a night. She’s known to email her staff — close to 200 attorneys, investigators, legal assistants and administrative aides — at 2 a.m.

She lives with her father, who raised her as a single dad in California and Washington, D.C. She says the two of them differ politically — he being far more liberal — but that he acts as her sounding board on moral issues.

In her free time, which is admittedly in short supply these days, Willis likes to watch “Game of Thrones.”

Legal hot potato

During her campaign, Willis promised a dramatic restructuring of the DA’s office. She said she’s replaced inexperienced prosecutors, some hired fresh out of law school, with courtroom veterans.

She overhauled the anti-corruption unit, which is investigating the alleged election interference, keeping just one investigator from Howard’s team.

That unit also handles investigations into police use of force, an issue that seemed likely to dominate Willis’ time. But last month, she asked Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr to disqualify her office from the cases involving Garrett Rolfe, the fired APD officer charged in the Brooks shooting; fellow Atlanta cop Devin Brosnan, accused of aggravated assault in the Brooks matter; and six officers charged with excessive force in the tasing arrests of college students Taniyah Pilgrim and Messiah Young.

Howard’s conduct in bringing the charges prompted her decision, Willis said. His use of possibly illegal subpoenas is the subject of a state investigation in which current and past employees may serve as witnesses.

“That is going to put a cloud on the way we are doing the job,” she said.

Carr disagreed, twice declining her efforts, saying any conflicts belong to Howard.

The cases are stalled, angering critics. Willis’ decision to recuse is frustrating in light of the Trump investigation, said attorney Chris Stewart, who represents Brooks’ family.

“All we want is the same attention and energy towards what happens locally here in Fulton County as we do in going after the former president,” Stewart said.

But South Fulton community activist Benny Crane said Willis would be shirking her responsibilities if she didn’t look into Trump’s alleged offenses.

“She was hired to deal with criminal acts that happen in her jurisdiction. Period,” Crane said. “And she has to follow the evidence where it leads her, no matter who it is. Whether it’s the minions, the governor or the president of the United States.”

Juggling responsibilities

Those who know Willis say she can balance competing cases and demands.

Ross, Willis’ mentee, said his former boss understands the immense power she wields as DA and “how wielding that power improperly could affect the community and the integrity of the office.”

“She’s not going to play games with it,” he said. “I think a lot of people are going to be surprised at just how transparent she will be about the facts, the evidence of the case.”

Willis said Fulton County residents can “rest assured that I am building a team of superstars that are more than qualified to do their job” and said “we are not going to be derelict in any of our duties.”

She said she has no timetable for the investigation and her ultimate decision about whether to bring cases against Trump.

Fulton County's newly elected District Attorney Fani Willis reacts during an interview in a conference room at the Fulton County Courthouse in downtown Atlanta on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Fulton County's newly elected District Attorney Fani Willis reacts during an interview in a conference room at the Fulton County Courthouse in downtown Atlanta on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

If a prosecution does move forward, Trump could hardly find a less friendly venue in Georgia. He won only about one-fourth of Fulton County’s votes in November, and his allies call it a continuation of a “witch hunt” in deeply Democratic territory.

Some Republicans are seeking ways to prevent local prosecutors from pursuing similar inquests in the future. One bill filed in the Georgia Legislature last week calls for a constitutional amendment that would require a statewide grand jury for “any crime involving voting, elections, or a violation of the election laws of this state and all related crimes.”

That would mean that Willis or other DAs would have to impanel a grand jury from beyond their territories, drawing in more residents from rural, conservative corners of the state.

The measure is unlikely to pass. Even if it did, Willis said it wouldn’t influence her investigation. She insists politics have played no role in her probe of the former commander-in-chief.

“Who else is going to do it?” she said. “Nobody is above the law.”

Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.

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