OPINION: What was Fani Willis thinking?

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Of course Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis’ investigation into Donald Trump’s attempt to hijack the 2020 election is “political.”

An elected official is investigating the world’s formerly most powerful elected official in regard to his efforts to overturn an election. They’re from different parties. How much more political can you get?

On Monday, Fulton County Judge Robert McBurney disqualified Madam DA and her office from investigating state Sen. Burt Jones for his part in trying to get Trump reelected, despite election returns that said otherwise. Jones was one of Trump’s 16 faux Electoral College electors and was being investigated for possible criminal charges. He is also the Republican candidate for Lt. Governor and is running against Willis’ preferred candidate, fellow Dem Charlie Bailey.

McBurney blocked Willis’ office from investigating Jones because in June she hosted a fundraiser for Bailey, who used to work with her in the DA’s office. At the time of the fundraiser, Bailey was in a Democratic runoff against Kwanza Hall, but Jones was already the GOP’s man in that race.

A couple of weeks later, Jones was notified he was a “target” of the investigation. It is unknown if the DA’s office was already looking at Jones when Willis was helping Bailey. But the probe was already well underway; she should have known better.

Last week, McBurney considered Jones’ complaint and said, “I don’t know that it’s an actual conflict, but… it’s a ‘What are you thinking?’ moment.”

Then after a weekend of his own thinking, McBurney wrote a ruling saying an investigation this important “cannot be burdened by legitimate doubts about the District Attorney’s motives. The District Attorney does not have to be apolitical, but her investigations do.”

The judge said helping Bailey “has consequences” for the DA. “She has bestowed her office’s imprimatur upon Senator Jones’s opponent. And since then, she has publicly (in her pleadings) labeled Senator Jones a ‘target’ of the grand jury’s investigation. This scenario creates plain — and actual and untenable — conflict.”

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Robert Smith, the lawyer for the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council, stuck up for Willis in an affidavit, telling the judge there was no “actual conflict” of interest. Instead, any possible conflict was merely “theoretical or speculative.”

McBurney noted the conflict was “actual” because he can’t read Willis’ mind and “any public criminal investigation into Senator Jones plainly benefits candidate Bailey’s campaign, of which the District Attorney is an open, avid, and official supporter.”

So, to answer the judge’s query as to what was she thinking?

Perhaps she thought Kwanza Hall would be a bad candidate for the Democrats. Or maybe she simply wanted to help Bailey, an old bud. Or perhaps she thought Bailey was the best candidate to beat Burt Jones if he wasn’t headed to prison.

All sorts of thoughts pop up when a political creature is involved in a political investigation. Over the years, there have been attempts in the legislature to make district attorney races non-partisan, meaning they’d run for office without a D or an R after their name on the ballot. However, the effort never goes anywhere because party affiliation helps DAs get reelected and self-preservation is a powerful human emotion second only to sex.

Willis became Fulton’s first female district attorney in January 2021, having thrashed six-time incumbent Paul Howard (who then faced a litany of scandals) in the June 2020 Democratic primary runoff. She ousted her former boss with more than 70 percent of the vote and faced no Republican opposition in November 2020.

ExploreNew Fulton DA balances Trump probe, massive local workload

She came into office with a reputation as someone who could be smart and tough on crime. And even-handed. Currently, her two biggest cases involved investigating both rappers and Republicans. That’s a wide spectrum.

But DAs are politicians and by that designation they are apt to blunder about in all sorts of situations that can come back to bite them.

Those in support of Willis have noted there was a fundraiser in June 2021 held for seven Fulton judges up for reelection, including McBurney. It was sponsored by attorneys Brad Carver and Alex Kaufman. Kaufman was the attorney who resigned from his firm after being involved with Trump’s infamous phone call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, which started this mess. And Carver is one of the fake electors being investigated and now is in the crosshairs of the State Bar Association.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Now, there are those wondering about those “optics.” The two lawyers were known as GOP operatives and it had been documented that they were in the midst of the 2020 election schemes. And although the grand jury started this year, Willis announced in February 2021 that she was looking into Trump’s phone call. So, this was certainly on the horizon.

It’s hard to see how any of the judges would have known this case would land in their lap. But in that field, you never know what’s coming. (McBurney took no money at the fundraiser. In fact, he really hasn’t for a decade. But he did loan his campaign $100,000 last year to scare away any lawyer crazy enough to run against a sitting judge. It worked. He ran unopposed.)

Burt Jones, in a statement, said Willis and Bailey should spend their time “addressing real issues” and stop “grandstanding and using their offices to score political points.”

You know, the guy who tried his damnedest to overturn an election.