Burt Jones blesses GOP efforts to punish Fulton DA Willis

Georgia’s lieutenant governor is still under investigation for role after 2020 election
Lt. Gov. Burt Jones leads members of the Senate into House chambers before the annual state of the judiciary address on Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Lt. Gov. Burt Jones leads members of the Senate into House chambers before the annual state of the judiciary address on Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

A full court press is underway in the Georgia Senate to punish Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis. And it has the blessing of Lt. Gov Burt Jones, a Donald Trump ally and Republican legislative leader who could face charges for his conduct following the 2020 election.

Jones is using his considerable political influence as president of the state Senate to allow separate legislative probes that scrutinize how Willis is handling a backlog of criminal cases and spending taxpayer dollars to oversee what he derides as a “circus” prosecution.

For a high-profile politician who could still face criminal charges, the lieutenant governor is unusually vocal in his criticism of Willis and her election interference case against the former president and 14 remaining co-defendants.

But he said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Willis’ personal relationship with Nathan Wade, the special prosecutor she tapped to handle the case, has made her “fair game” for intense legislative scrutiny.

“It has all the implications that she is prosecuting for profit,” Jones said. “I know she’s out there wanting to be a self-promoter, but now it looks like she’s profiting off taxpayer dollars.”

Willis’ previously undisclosed relationship with Wade has prompted more than a third of the remaining defendants in the case, including Trump, to file court motions seeking to disqualify the DA from the case. In a court motion, she said she did nothing wrong.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis speaks during a news conference at the Fulton County Courthouse in downtown Atlanta last year. State Sen. Burt Jones spokesman Stephen Lawson, who called Jones' opponent's comments "politically motivated," said Willis — who is investigating former President Donald Trump — hosted a fundraiser last month for that opponent, Charlie Bailey.(Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

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Jones, meanwhile, isn’t hiding his role in questioning the DA’s decisions.

He helped launch a Senate investigation last year into the overcrowding of the Fulton County Jail that has delved into Willis’ handling of a backlog of criminal cases and is expected to attempt to tie her to recent deaths at the long-troubled facility.

And he recently endorsed a new Senate committee with subpoena power to investigate whether Willis misspent any state money as a result of her relationship with Wade. The panel, created by legislation sponsored by one of Jones’ closest allies, held its first meeting Friday.

Jones also supports an effort by Gov. Brian Kemp to grant a new state commission powers to punish or oust “rogue” prosecutors. Several of his top supporters in the Senate filed the first complaint under the law that claims Willis “improperly cherry-picked cases” to further her own political career.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp was the chief supporter of a measure to create an oversight panel for prosecutors -- something some allies of Donald Trump hope to use to punish Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis after she brought an indictment against the former president. But Kemp has said he has seen no evidence that the Democratic prosecutor should merit the panel's scrutiny. (Arvin Temkar/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

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For Jones, a likely candidate for governor in 2026, his hard-bitten stance toward Willis carries risks and rewards. It could endear him to Trump loyalists who dominate the GOP primary. But it also makes it easier for opponents to frame him as a vindictive politician who uses the levers of powers for his own benefit.

“I’ve seen corruption before around the state, and Republicans didn’t want to do anything. Now, all of the sudden they are crusaders?” said state Rep. Al Williams, a Midway Democrat. “Voters in Fulton County elected Fani Willis and the voters of Fulton County should have the final say.”

In the interview, Jones said he’s not pursuing the investigations out of a sense of revenge. Instead, he framed them as an effort to hold Willis accountable.

“I’m wondering if the resources are being used properly,” he said.

Willis, who declined to comment for this story, has not been shy about hitting back against her statehouse critics. While she hasn’t spoken publicly about the new committee that will probe her relationship, she previously described the new state oversight commission for prosecutors as “racist.” And in a December interview with the AJC she called the legislature’s jail probe “an extremely weak attempt at a slap at this office.”

“It’s just politics. They worry their hero is treated the same as everybody else,” she said of GOP lawmakers and Trump. “And now they want to come up with foolishness.”

‘Truth will prevail’

Not long ago, Jones was more understated in his criticism of Willis, despite the fact that he exposed what became the DA’s other major unforced error in the case.

In December 2020, when he was still a state senator, Jones was one of 16 GOP activists who signed documents claiming they were duly elected presidential electors from Georgia — even though multiple vote counts had shown Democrat Joe Biden had won the state.

In July 2022, Fulton prosecutors sent “target” letters to Jones and the other GOP electors, warning them they could be criminally charged. They countered they were following legal advice to preserve Trump’s options in case his court challenges prevailed.

Shortly after, Jones filed a motion seeking to block Willis from bringing charges against him because she hosted a fundraiser for Charlie Bailey, who went on to become Jones’ Democratic opponent. In a surprise ruling, a Fulton County judge disqualified Willis and her office from further investigating Jones.

Georgia state Sen. Burt Jones, R-Ga., speaks to supporters of former U.S. President Donald Trump at a rally at the Banks County Dragway on March 26, 2022, in Commerce, Georgia. (Megan Varner/Getty Images/TNS)

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That put the Prosecuting Attorneys Council of Georgia, a nonpartisan state agency, in charge of deciding whether to take further action against Jones. Some 18 months later, the council has yet to announce whether it will pursue charges against the lieutenant governor or drop the case.

Jones, who has spent more than $110,000 in campaign cash on legal fees, is awaiting an update.

“I know I didn’t do anything wrong,” he said. “I know the truth will prevail ... So I know all that will get in the rearview mirror at some point.”

‘We want to know’

Over the next few weeks, the new Senate committee is set to hear from witnesses, review evidence and deliver findings about Willis’ stewardship of taxpayer money. What’s less clear is whether it will also seek to cut the small amount of funding the DA’s office receives from the state or aim more to damage her reputation as she runs for reelection.

The new investigative committee can subpoena evidence and witnesses and has the rare power to require that testimony be given under oath. GOP sponsors say a primary goal is to determine whether Willis misspent any state funds, including on trips she took to Napa Valley and the Caribbean with Wade.

“The investigation is looking at our state funding and making sure that on these little junkets she went on with her lover, that state funds aren’t being used,” said GOP state Sen. Matt Brass. “We’re fiscally responsible for the state’s money. And so we want to know where it’s going.”

State Sen. Matt Brass, R-Newnan, speaks at the Georgia State Capitol during a special session to redraw district maps for Congressional seats on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023. (Natrice Miller/Natrice.miller@ajc.com)

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State legislators have little direct control over Willis’ budget, which is mostly funded by Fulton County taxpayers. Only 22 of the office’s roughly 385 positions come from a state funding formula, according to the Fulton DA’s office, along with some travel and training expenses. That state funding passes through the Prosecuting Attorneys Council of Georgia, the same group that is also tasked with deciding Jones’ legal fate.

Pete Skandalakis, the head of the council, said that while the Legislature funds a prescribed number of positions within the state’s 50 DA’s offices, it otherwise has no hand in their day-to-day operations.

Even so, officials note the new committee is empowered to “prompt some change in state appropriations” that could lead to significant changes over how the DA’s office spends state and local funding.

“This committee can show what tax dollars have been spent at the Fulton County level,” said Jones. “These are all Georgia tax dollars, whether it’s coming from the state or directly through Fulton County.”

Staff Writer Maya T. Prabhu contributed to this report.