More Trump defendants call for Willis removal in Ga. election case

Shafer and Latham join a growing chorus accusing Fulton DA of misconduct
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis reacts as she speaks during a worship service at the Big Bethel AME Church, where she was invited as a guest speaker on Sunday, Jan. 14, 2024, in Atlanta.
(Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com)

Credit: Miguel Martinez/AJC

Credit: Miguel Martinez/AJC

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis reacts as she speaks during a worship service at the Big Bethel AME Church, where she was invited as a guest speaker on Sunday, Jan. 14, 2024, in Atlanta. (Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com)

Two more codefendants of Donald Trump on Monday said that Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis should be removed from their election interference case, accusing her of prosecutorial misconduct.

Former state Republican Party Chairman David Shafer and ex-Coffee County GOP Chairwoman Cathy Latham said Willis’ remarks at a historic Black church in Atlanta as well as her acknowledgment of a personal relationship with her top Trump prosecutor show she is unfit to head up the sprawling racketeering case.

“All the causes for the disqualification are self-inflicted blows,” said a motion, filed by lawyers for Shafer and adopted by Latham. Willis has strayed “wildly from the legal guardrails that are designed to protect the accused from improper, extrajudicial comments.”

The addition of Shafer and Latham means five of the remaining 15 Trump defendants are now formally seeking to disqualify Willis and the DA’s office from the case. Former Trump campaign aide Michael Roman was the first to do so. His court filing last month contended Willis must be removed because she had financially benefited from an improper, romantic relationship with special prosecutor Nathan Wade.

In a response on Friday, the DA’s office and Wade acknowledged the personal relationship but said it does not require Willis or the office to be removed from the case. Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee has set a Feb. 15 hearing on the matter.

‘Completely avoidable errors’

The new motion from Shafer, filed by lawyers Craig Gillen, Anthony Lake and Holly Pierson, acknowledges that a court hearing on these claims “is unseemly and an uncomfortable experience for all involved.”

But the actions by Willis and Wade were “completely avoidable errors in which the defense had no hand but are of such significance that the defense has no choice but to put them before the court.”

Outgoing Georgia GOP Chairman David Shafer introduces a speaker at the Georgia GOP convention in Columbus on Friday, June 9, 2023. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

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Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Like Roman, Shafer argued that Willis financially benefited from her appointment of Wade. Court records show Wade has billed the county for more than $728,000 in legal fees and Roman’s motion said Wade used some of that money to pay for vacations he took with Willis to Napa Valley and the Caribbean.

Willis, Shafer’s motion said, “presumably possesses a personal interest in her romantic interest, Mr. Wade, continuing to receive large amounts of state or county funds by remaining a special assistant district attorney in the case.”

In an affidavit attached to the DA’s response filed Friday, Wade said expenses for their trips “were roughly divided equally between us.”

Not so, said Shafer. His lawyers said receipts which have been shared publicly “are not remotely ‘roughly’ equal.”

Shafer’s lawyers are likely referring to the credit card and bank statements publicly filed in Wade’s divorce case. They show Wade purchased what appeared to be more than $7,200 in airline tickets, hotels and cruise reservations for trips he and Willis took together. While the example given by Wade in the state’s response showed Willis bought two $697 airline tickets for the two of them for a trip to Miami.

For this reason, an evidentiary hearing is needed “to obtain a complete financial picture of the gifts and benefits which Wade has bestowed on District Attorney Willis,” Shafer’s lawyers said.

Charges of racism

Shafer’s motion also cited Willis’ remarks on the weekend of Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday at Atlanta’s Big Bethel AME Church. During a speech from the pulpit, Willis questioned why Wade, who is Black, was being singled out when her other two special prosecutors are white.

“The obvious intent of her remarks was to inject and infect the jury pool in Fulton County with unfounded allegations that anyone who dares question her or Mr. Wade’s conduct must have done so for racist purposes,” the motion said.

Trump’s legal team has also honed in on Willis’ remarks at Big Bethel. In their response Friday, the DA’s office said Willis’ remarks were well within legal and ethical rules and guidelines.

Shafer is charged in the racketeering case for being a GOP elector at the state Capitol on Dec. 14, 2020, casting an Electoral College vote for Trump even though several vote counts showed Joe Biden had won Georgia.

In prior court filings, Shafer’s lawyers said he was following the advice of counsel at the time and that it was not illegal to cast a conditional vote for Trump. The motion also criticized Willis for calling the 16 GOP officials “fake electors,” saying it was improper and prejudicial.

Latham served as a Trump elector and was also charged for her alleged role in the breach of sensitive voting data in rural Coffee County.

FILE - In this Jan. 7, 2021, image taken from Coffee County, Ga., security video, Cathy Latham (center) is seen in the local elections office in Douglas, Ga., while a computer forensics team was there to make copies of voting equipment. Latham was the county Republican Party chair at the time. (Coffee County, Georgia via AP, File)

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In a separate motion also filed Monday, Latham sought to strike a felony perjury accusation that was made against her in the August indictment. Latham was charged with making at least one false statement during a Sept. 1, 2022, deposition in a separate federal election security case about her role in the Jan. 7, 2021, breach at the Coffee Board of Elections office. Latham’s attorney, William Cromwell, said the state can’t punish alleged perjury from a federal case.

No disqualifying conflict

Meanwhile, a group of 17 ethics experts, former prosecutors and defense attorneys argued in a separate “friend of the court” brief on Tuesday that Willis does not have any conflicts that warrant her disqualification.

The coalition – which includes former Georgia-based federal prosecutor Amy Lee Copeland, onetime DeKalb DA J. Tom Morgan and Richard Painter, the top White House ethics lawyer during the George W. Bush administration – laid out why McAfee should dismiss multiple court motions alleging impropriety against Willis.

”Disqualifying conflicts,” the group wrote, “occur when a prosecutor’s previous representation of a defendant gives the prosecutor forbidden access to confidential information about the defendant or a conflict otherwise directly impacts fairness and due process owed a defendant. That kind of conflict is not at issue here.”

The group also defended Willis’ remarks at Big Bethel AME Church saying they are not disqualifying because they were not directed at a particular defendant, nor were they focused on the alleged guilt of any defendant or the merits of the case. They said the jury selection phase of the case was the most appropriate place to address whether Willis’ comments might have impacted the jury pool.

Change of venue requested

On Monday, Shafer also requested that McAfee change the venue for the case’s later stages to a Georgia county that’s more evenly divided politically.

Shafer suggested that jury selection and the trial take place in either Burke or Peach counties, where former President Donald Trump narrowly received more votes over Democrat Joe Biden in 2020.

Such a move “will ensure an impartial and less politically partisan jury, will help shield any trial in this action and any jurors from the intense focus of the news media, and will aid in securing a fair trial for the defendants,” Shafer’s attorneys argued, noting that more than 70% of Fulton County voters opted for Biden in 2020.

Voters in Burke County, located south of Augusta and about 160 miles east of downtown Atlanta, picked Trump over Biden 50.5% to 48.8% four years ago.

Peach County, southwest of Macon and about 100 miles from downtown Atlanta, has a history as one of Georgia’s bellwether counties. In 2020, Trump won Peach with 51.8% of the vote, compared to 49.2% statewide.

An alternate slate of electors nominated by the Republican Party of Georgia  cast their own electoral votes for President Donald Trump Vice President Mike Pence at the Georgia State Capitol on Monday, Dec. 14, 2020 at the same time the official Democratic electors were casting their votes for Vice President Joe Biden in another part of the Capitol. (AP Photo/Ben Gray)

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Shafer cited threats of violence Willis has received since launching the case.

”Mr. Shafer believes that a danger of violence exists if Mr. Shafer and the other defendants are subjected to a trial in Fulton County,” his team argued.

Shafer isn’t the only defendant to push for a change of venue. Codefendant Harrison Floyd last month requested that the case be moved to Coffee County.

‘Duly elected and qualified’ electors

In a separate motion filed Monday, Shafer sought to strike one of the bedrock principles of the August indictment: that the Republicans who met in Georgia and a handful of other swing states in 2020 were casting “false Electoral College votes” for Donald Trump and hence breaking the law, while Democrats were “duly elected and qualified Presidential Electors” for Joe Biden.

Shafer’s attorneys argued that such language was “erroneous and prejudicial” to a jury and that the court or jurors themselves are the best parties to make those conclusions.

The filing is not the first time the scope of the federal Electoral Count Act has been brought up in the Fulton case. The issue has come up before Judge McAfee and U.S. District Court Judge Steve Jones as the three electors have argued they did not break the law casting what they call “contingent” Electoral College ballots for Trump.