Defendant: DA Fani Willis, special prosecutor ‘not forthright’ on relationship

Latest salvo in Trump case comes in advance of hearings next week

                        FILE  — Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis holds a press conference to announce the indictment of former President Donald Trump and others, in Atlanta on Aug. 14, 2023. Fani Willis, center, is accused of having a romantic relationship with Nathan Wade, right, a special prosecutor she had hired. (Kenny Holston/The New York Times)

Credit: NYT

Credit: NYT

FILE — Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis holds a press conference to announce the indictment of former President Donald Trump and others, in Atlanta on Aug. 14, 2023. Fani Willis, center, is accused of having a romantic relationship with Nathan Wade, right, a special prosecutor she had hired. (Kenny Holston/The New York Times)

The Fulton County district attorney’s office misrepresented facts about the personal relationship between Fani Willis and special prosecutor Nathan Wade, according to a court filing Friday by a lawyer for a defendant in the Donald Trump election interference case.

The new claims by attorney Ashleigh Merchant raise questions about the veracity of a recent motion filed by the DA’s office and a sworn affidavit from Wade. Merchant, who represents Michael Roman, is seeking to disqualify Willis and her team from the consequential case and get the charges against her client dropped. Six other codefendants, including Trump, have also alleged misconduct by Willis they say should result in her ouster.

Last week, the DA’s office fired back for the first time in a scathing motion that acknowledged Willis and Wade had a personal relationship but said they did nothing wrong.

But in Friday’s court filing, Merchant said that Wade’s onetime friend and lawyer can testify that Wade and Willis began a romantic relationship two years earlier than they acknowledged and before the DA had hired him to run the Trump investigation. And the filing alleged bank records show that Wade paid for additional trips the prosecutors took together, undercutting the assertion that the pair had roughly split costs for their travel.

The court document said that both Willis and Wade, who has billed for more than $728,000 in legal fees for his work, have enriched themselves on the case.

“This enrichment is a form of self-dealing, which creates a personal interest in this case,” the filing said.

“In other words, the more work that is done on the case (regardless of what justice calls for) the more they get paid,” the motion said. “The more they fight Mr. Roman’s motions, the more they get paid. The more they refuse to dismiss defendants who should not be indicted, the more money they make. And, of course, the more money the special prosecutor makes, the more the district attorney gets to reap the financial benefits.”

Who picked up the tab?

Travel has been at the center of the allegations against the two prosecutors because the trips allegedly prove Wade using taxpayer money on Willis, his boss who makes hiring decisions.

It was credit card receipts for airline tickets, which were uncovered as part of Wade’s divorce, that first raised questions about the nature of their relationship.

They detailed trips to Napa Valley, Miami and Aruba, paid for by Wade.

In his affidavit, Wade said the financial responsibility for his and Willis’ trips has been “divided roughly evenly” between the two of them. And he attached receipts showing she had bought two $697 plane tickets for a trip to Miami,

But Friday’s filing indicates that Wade spent thousands more dollars than had previously been known and included two destinations not made public before — the Bahamas in late December 2022 to Belize in March 2023.

It is unclear if Willis reimbursed Wade for some of the travel costs.

Ashleigh Merchant, an attorney for defendant Mike Roman who made the allegations about Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis and prosecutor Nathan Wade in a court filing earlier this month, speaks on Monday, Jan. 22, 2024. Natrice Miller/

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‘Directly from Wade’

The filing also honed in on whether Willis and Wade had been truthful about when their relationship began.

In his affidavit attached to the DA’s court filing last week, Wade said he and Willis had been friends since 2019 and only developed a personal relationship in 2022 — after Willis had hired him.

But the new court filing said Atlanta attorney Terrence Bradley, once a business associate of Wade’s who briefly represented him in his divorce, “can confirm that Willis contracted with Wade after Wade and Willis began a romantic relationship.” Bradley obtained this information “directly from Wade … in a personal capacity as Wade’s friend prior to Wade’s decision to file for divorce,” the motion said.

Bradley did not immediately respond for a request for comment. The DA’s office declined to comment.

In her motion, Merchant said Wade’s statement in his affidavit is inadmissible hearsay, further necessitating the need for a hearing.

“Since Willis and Wade were not forthright about their relationship in the first instance, there is no reason to believe they are telling the truth now,” Merchant’s motion said.

It said motions to disqualify Willis filed by Roman and other defendants, including Trump, have provided the court with sufficient information about Willis’ alleged conflict of interest and forensic misconduct to warrant a hearing.

The DA’s office said the claims should be dismissed without the need for an evidentiary hearing scheduled for next Thursday by Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee. The office subsequently filed a motion to quash subpoenas issued to Willis, Wade, other members of the office as well as Wade’s former law partners. A hearing on that narrower matter has been set for Monday.

The DA’s response filed a week ago said Merchant’s attempt to disqualify the DA’s office “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.”

‘Damage is already done’

Roman’s motion also criticizes Willis for out-of-court comments she made during a speech last month at Big Bethel AME Church. And it highlights remarks the DA made over the years about the case to a number of publications, including The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and to the authors of a recently published book: “Find Me The Votes: A Hard-Charging Georgia Prosecutor, a Rogue President and the Plot to Steal an American Election.”

The motion said Willis’ comments were part of a plan “to tear down the defendants’ pretrial constitutional protections” by boosting her public profile and denouncing those who have been charged.

“The damage is already done,” the motion said. “That is why there are specific rules that prevent prosecutors, in particular, from making extra-judicial statements to the news media that are designed to increase the public’s condemnation of the accused before trial starts.”

Willis’ office has argued Roman’s strategy ahead of the hearing “suggests an eye toward public narrative as opposed to legal remedy.” And it noted that, for decades, Georgia’s courts have held that personal relationships among lawyers do not constitute impermissible conflicts of interest.

In moving the kill Merchant’s subpoenas, it said, “Roman is casting as wide a net as is possible in hopes that he finds some information to support allegations he has already made.”

The testimony sought from Willis, Wade and others is designed to attract “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,” the DA’s office said.

Roman’s latest filing comes as scrutiny of Willis’ actions continues to intensify. On Friday the Senate Special Committee on Investigations convened its first meeting at the Georgia Capitol to delve into the allegations against Willis.

Chairman Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, pledged to run the investigation in a bipartisan manner – despite concerns from Democrats that the investigation will amount to political theater.

“We have both parties included in this committee for a reason,” Cowsert said Friday. “It’s important for our validity that the public understand that this is not any kind of political witch hunt. This is a quest for the truth.”