Fulton DA Fani Willis says relationship with Trump prosecutor shouldn’t disqualify her

DA’s office argues no conflict to warrant removal, dropping charges
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis (center) confers with prosecutors, Donald Wakeford (left) and Nathan Wade, (right) during a hearing on July 1, 2022. (Hyosub Shin/hyosub.shin@ajc.com)

Credit: Hyosub Shin/AJC

Credit: Hyosub Shin/AJC

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis (center) confers with prosecutors, Donald Wakeford (left) and Nathan Wade, (right) during a hearing on July 1, 2022. (Hyosub Shin/hyosub.shin@ajc.com)

District Attorney Fani Willis on Friday acknowledged she was in a “personal relationship” with Nathan Wade, one of the top prosecutors on Fulton County’s election interference case, but said there was no conflict that justified removing her or her office from prosecuting Donald Trump and 14 others.

The admission was included as part of Willis’ highly-anticipated written response to allegations of impropriety that have rocked the Trump case for the last month.

In the 176-page document, Willis said the accusations made against her and Wade were designed mainly to garner media attention — and didn’t carry much legal weight.

“(T)he motions attempt to cobble together entirely unremarkable circumstances of Special Prosecutor Wade’s appointment with completely irrelevant allegations about his personal family life into a manufactured conflict of interest on the part of the District Attorney,” the filing said. “The effort must fail.”

The claims against Willis and Wade first surfaced in a Jan. 8 court filing from defendant Michael Roman. The former Trump campaign official alleged that Willis, through her romantic relationship with Wade, has a financial interest in the case that should disqualify her and her office from prosecuting it. Roman said it also meant the felony charges against him should be dropped

Fulton Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee had given Willis until today to respond. He has scheduled an evidentiary hearing on February 15.

‘Ticket to the circus’

Roman’s lawyer, Ashleigh Merchant, has subpoenaed Willis, Wade and other members of the DA’s office to testify at the hearing. She has also subpoenaed travel companies for receipts of trips the two have taken together, as well as Wade’s bank for his financial statements.

The state’s response Friday said the DA’s office will move to quash the subpoenas served on Willis, Wade and others in the office. Their testimony 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 filing said.

It added, “This 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.”

In seeking to disqualify the DA, Roman has highlighted records disclosed through Wade’s divorce case, which showed he purchased airline tickets for Willis to Napa Valley and the Caribbean using money he apparently earned for his work on the Trump case. Lawyers for Trump and codefendant Bob Cheeley have authored similar filings seeking to have their charges dropped.

Willis and Wade had been friends since 2019, according to the DA’s office, but were not involved in a personal relationship until after he was hired to lead the Trump case in November 2021.

“In 2022, District Attorney Willis and I developed a personal relationship in addition to our professional association and friendship,” Wade said in an affidavit attached to the DA’s response.

Willis hasn’t improperly benefited from Wade’s appointment and compensation, her office insisted.

”To be absolutely clear, the personal relationship between Special Prosecutor Wade and District Attorney Willis has never involved direct or indirect financial benefit to District Attorney Willis,” the filing said. “Defendants have produced no evidence to suggest that there is any circumstance that would constitute a financial incentive on the District Attorney’s part to pursue a conviction in this case through the appointment of Special Prosecutor Wade.”

The response said Willis and Wade do not share finances or financial accounts; are not now and have never been in any shared household; and are not financially reliant on each other.

Without specifically addressing the trips to Napa Valley and the Caribbean, the response said Willis’ and Wade’s “financial responsibility for personal travel is divided roughly evenly between the two, with neither being primarily responsible for expenses of the other, and all expenses paid for with individual personal funds.”

For decades, the filing said, Georgia’s courts have held, in both civil and criminal contexts, that personal relationships among lawyers — even on opposing sides of litigation — do not constitute impermissible conflicts of interest, the motion said.

The response notes that two sets of defense lawyers in the case have personal relationships: Amanda Clark Palmer, who represents Ray Smith, and Scott Grubman, who had represented Kenneth Chesebro; and Frank and Laura Hogue, the husband-and-wife legal team that represented Jenna Ellis. (Grubman quickly responded on social media that he and Clark Palmer have never jointly “made a decision to charge someone with a crime,” nor has he been in a position “to direct lucrative publicly funded contracts” Clark’s way.)

The state said it did not alert the court to these relationships as potential conflicts because they constitute no legal conflict and “until Roman’s motion was filed, the private lives of the attorney participants in this trial was not a topic of discussion.”

‘This court cannot just take their word for it’

The state also condemned Roman attorney Merchant’s disparagement of Wade’s legal career, calling it “baseless” and made in “bad faith.” It said Wade has had a distinguished legal career and is “an exceptionally talented litigator with significant trial experience.”

The response added, “He is a diligent and relentless advocate known for his candor with the court and a leader more than capable of managing the complexity of this case.” And the filing included photos of a dancing Merchant wearing a Wade T-shirt while campaigning for his failed campaign for a judgeship in 2016.

In a reply filed Friday afternoon, Merchant said she needs to question Willis and Wade at the upcoming hearing on grounds they may not have been truthful about when the relationship began and whether they had lived together.

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/ Natrice.miller@ajc.com)

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Her filing infers that Willis’ and Wade’s personal relationship began in 2019, two years before he was appointed special prosecutor. Even though Wade, in his affidavit, said he had never “cohabitated” with Willis, Merchant’s reply said she has witnesses who will testify that they lived together for a period of time at her Fulton County home and later at an apartment in East Point and a safe house for Willis in Hapeville.

“If they had nothing to hide in the first place because they did nothing wrong, then why did they intentionally not tell anyone about it until they got caught with their hand in the cookie jar?” Merchant wrote. “This highlights the very reason why this court cannot just take their word for it.”

Steve Sadow, Trump’s lead Atlanta attorney, said Willis omitted key information from her response, including relevant financial details and an explanation of why Wade filed for a divorce the day after he was hired on the Trump case. Sadow said the DA also needs to respond to comments she recently made at Atlanta’s Big Bethel AME Church, which Sadow alleged was meant to create “racial animus” against the defendants.

Trump and other Republicans, including in the state legislature, have used the allegations against Willis and Wade to undermine the case in recent weeks.

In their response, the Fulton DA’s office said there is nothing wrong with Wade being paid hourly fees as a special prosecutor. According to records obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Wade is billing the state at a rate of $250 an hour and, through Nov. 30, had billed for more than $728,000, far more than the other two special prosecutors, Anna Cross and John Floyd.

”Comparisons to the invoiced work of other special prosecutors tasked with dramatically less time-consuming work and much more circumscribed roles are staggeringly off-mark,” the response said. “Special Prosecutor Wade made much more money than the other special prosecutors only because Wade did much more work.”

The response was filed by Willis and eight of her deputies, including Wade.