Filing alleges ‘improper’ relationship between Fulton DA, top Trump prosecutor

Fani Willis hired alleged romantic partner as special prosecutor, court motion says
Fulton DA Fani Willis, center, confers with lead prosecutors, Donald Wakeford, left, and Nathan Wade, during a hearing at the Fulton County Courthouse in Atlanta on July 1, 2022. (Hyosub Shin/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

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Fulton DA Fani Willis, center, confers with lead prosecutors, Donald Wakeford, left, and Nathan Wade, during a hearing at the Fulton County Courthouse in Atlanta on July 1, 2022. (Hyosub Shin/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

District Attorney Fani Willis improperly hired an alleged romantic partner to prosecute Donald Trump and financially benefited from their relationship, according to a court motion filed Monday which argued the criminal charges in the case were unconstitutional.

The bombshell public filing alleged that special prosecutor Nathan Wade, a private attorney, paid for lavish vacations he took with Willis using the Fulton County funds his law firm received. County records show that Wade, who has played a prominent role in the election interference case, has been paid nearly $654,000 in legal fees since January 2022. The DA authorizes his compensation.

The motion, filed on behalf of defendant Michael Roman, a former Trump campaign official, seeks to have the charges against Roman dismissed and for Willis, Wade and the entire DA’s office to be disqualified from further prosecution of the case.

Pallavi Bailey, a Willis spokeswoman, said the DA’s office will respond to Roman’s allegations “through appropriate court filings.” Wade did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The document offers no concrete proof of the romantic ties between Willis and Wade, but says “sources close to both the special prosecutor and the district attorney have confirmed they had an ongoing, personal relationship.”

Roman’s lawyer, Ashleigh Merchant, said she reviewed the case file in Wade’s ongoing divorce proceedings at the Superior Court Clerk’s Office and made copies of certain documents. But the case file was later improperly sealed because no court hearing was held as required by law, the motion said.

Because the case remains under seal, Merchant said she is not sharing the information she obtained from the divorce file until the seal is lifted. She also said she is asking a judge to unseal the case file.

It is unclear if the explosive issues raised in the filing undermine the validity of the indictment against Trump and the remaining 14 co-defendants or simply muddy the waters by questioning Willis’ professional ethics.

One ethics expert said that the allegations, if true, raised serious questions.

Stephen Gillers, a professor emeritus at New York University Law School who has written extensively about legal and judicial ethics, said a closer look at Willis’ decision-making is needed before it can be determined whether the indictment should be dismissed.

If the allegations are true, Gillers said, “Willis was conflicted in the investigation and prosecution of this case” and wasn’t able to bring the sort of “independent professional judgment” her position requires.

“That does not mean that her decisions were in fact improperly motivated,” Gillers said in an e-mail. “It does mean that the public and the state, as her client, could not have the confidence in the independent judgment that her position required her to exercise.”

The filing alleges that Willis and Wade have been involved in a romantic relationship that began before Wade was appointed special prosecutor. It says they traveled together to Napa Valley and Florida, and they cruised the Caribbean together using tickets Wade purchased from Norwegian and Royal Caribbean cruise lines — although the filing did not include documentation of those purchases.

The motion said the checks sent to Wade from Fulton County and his subsequent purchase of vacations for Willis could amount to honest services fraud, a federal crime in which a vendor gives kickbacks to an employer. It is also possible this could be prosecuted under the federal racketeering statute, the motion said

Merchant wrote that the “motion is not filed lightly. Nor is it being filed without considerable forethought, research or investigation.”

Atlanta DA Fani Willis answers questions for the press after the indictment of former President Trump and 18 others at Fulton County Courthouse on Monday, Aug. 14, 2023, in Atlanta. Special prosecutor Nathan Wade stands to her right. (Michael Blackshire/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

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But the issue had to be raised and must be heard because the issues “strike at the heart of fairness in our justice system and, if left unaddressed and unchecked, threaten to taint the entire prosecution of this case, invite error and completely undermine public confidence in any outcome in this proceeding.”

Willis and Wade, the motion contends, “have been engaged in an improper, clandestine personal relationship during the pendency of this case, which has resulted in the special prosecutor, and, in turn, the district attorney, profiting significantly from this prosecution at the expense of the taxpayers.”

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A problem with Wade’s appointment is that it was not approved by the Fulton board of commissioners as required by law, the motion said. The motion also questions Wade’s credentials, contending he has never prosecuted a felony case. (Wade was an assistant solicitor for Cobb County in 1999. The office handles misdemeanor cases.)

Wade entered into his special prosecutor contract on Nov. 1, 2021, just one day before he filed for divorce in Cobb County, the motion said. Willis is divorced.

Roman’s filing also resurfaces an accusation previously made against Wade: that his two oaths of office were not filed in court prior to his work on the case, so he misrepresented himself as a duly authorized special prosecutor.

Judge Scott McAfee previously rejected that argument, stating that the requirements don’t apply to contractors working on single cases and that the defendants didn’t establish a constitutional violation or structural defect to the grand jury process that warranted dismissing the case outright.

”If this parrot of a motion is somehow not yet dead, the defendant has failed to establish how (Wade’s) actions resulted in prejudice,” McAfee wrote, alluding to a famous Monty Python sketch.

Merchant acknowledged McAfee’s ruling but said that “in the larger context of the various issues surrounding his appointment, Willis’ lack of authority to appoint him and the conflict of interest issues addressed below, the fact that Wade did not file his oath before beginning work takes on new and more significant meaning and, indeed, constitutes a structural defect in the indictment.”

Merchant’s filing came on the day McAfee had set as a deadline for most of the defendants to submit pretrial motions in the sprawling criminal case.

Roman worked as director of Election Day operations for the Trump campaign in 2020. He was charged with seven felony counts in Fulton, most of them conspiracy charges in conjunction with his role helping organize slates of Trump electors in battleground states won by Democrat Joe Biden, including Georgia. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges, and his legal team previously turned down a plea offer from the DA’s office.

Notably, Roman was the only one of the 19 people Willis charged who had not been recommended for indictment by a special grand jury which spent eight months investigating election subversion efforts in Georgia after the 2020 election. A separate grand jury handed up criminal charges.

Staff writer Rosie Manins contributed to this article.

This story has been updated to show that Wade served as an assistant solicitor in Cobb County.