Fulton board says it doesn’t have jurisdiction over Fani Willis ethics complaints

The Fulton County Board of Ethics has determined it does not have jurisdiction to hear two complaints against District Attorney Fani Willis — a finding that undermines defense attorneys’ contention that the DA violated county ethics rules in the election interference case.

The ethics board Thursday was set to hear two complaints related to allegations that Willis had an improper romantic relationship with special prosecutor Nathan Wade and should be disqualified from the case against former President Donald Trump and 14 others. But when the meeting convened, Chairman Daraka Satcher announced the board did not have jurisdiction over the complaints because Willis is a state constitutional officer, not a county official subject to the ethics code.

Instead, Satcher said the Georgia State Ethics Commission is the proper venue for the complaints - a contention that is also in dispute.

“The Fulton County Code of Ethics, our code of ethics, only applies to county officers and employees,” Satcher said, reading a prepared statement.

Willis’ office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Willis has been under intense scrutiny since defense attorneys sought to have her disqualified from the election interference case in January. They say she hired her boyfriend, Wade, to oversee the case, then benefitted financially when he paid for trips to Aruba, Napa Valley and other locales. However, Willis and Wade have said they were not romantically involved when she hired him to oversee the case in November 2021. They said their romance began in early 2022 and ended last summer.

In court documents and testimony, the couple have said they split the cost of their travel roughly evenly and have done nothing improper. Last week Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee heard closing arguments on the defense motions to disqualify Willis and is expected to rule by March 15.

In the meantime, Willis is under scrutiny from numerous quarters. A Georgia Senate committee and the U.S. House Judiciary Committee are investigating her actions, a new prosecutors oversight board could launch its own investigation and some Fulton County commissioners are pushing for an audit.

Senator Harold Jones asks questions to Defense attorney Ashleigh Merchant during a Senate Special Committee on Investigation hearing at the Georgia State Capitol on Wednesday, March 6, 2024. (Steve Schaefer/steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

Credit: Steve Schaefer/AJC

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Credit: Steve Schaefer/AJC

By comparison, the stakes of the county ethics complaints filed last month were small. If the board found her guilty of violating ethics policies, Willis faced at most a reprimand and a $1,000 fine.

But now even that won’t happen.

One of the complaints, filed by Fulton County resident Steven Kramer, mirrored the allegations of the defense attorneys in the election case. Among other things, it said Willis should have disclosed the trips with Wade for under the county ethics code.

The other complaint, filed by internet-based talk show host Gregory Mantell, said Willis’ office had illegally refused to release financial records related to Wade’s invoices.

Whether the county code applied to Willis was a matter of debate. In motions to disqualify Willis, defense attorneys said she had violated county ethics policies. But on Thursday the ethics board affirmed the county policy did not apply to Willis.

One board member, Chris Miller, said he “would not go so far as to say this board is precluded from acting” on the complaints. But he agreed with the decision to remove the complaints from the agenda because others in the legislative and judicial branches are already scrutinizing Willis’ actions “with greater rigor and detail.”

In his statement, Satcher said the State Ethics Commission has jurisdiction over district attorneys. But the state commission handles only campaign finance and lobbying violations.

Pete Skandalakis, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, is the special prosecutor overseeing the criminal case against Atlanta police officers Garrett Rolfe and Devin Brosnan in the shooting death of Rayshard Brooks.

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

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Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Pete Skandalakis, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys Council of Georgia, recently told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the State Bar of Georgia investigates alleged violations of rules of professional conduct for attorneys. The American Accountability Foundation, a conservative watchdog group, recently asked the state bar to open disciplinary proceedings against Willis and Wade for alleged ethical violations.

Skandalakis said the new Prosecuting Attorneys Qualifications Commission would have the authority to enforce rules and standards that it adopts.

Republican legislators have asked the qualifications commission is expected to reprimand Willis. The General Assembly has approved legislation that would allow the commission to begin its work. It awaits the signature of Gov. Brian Kemp.

Mantell told the AJC Thursday he has forwarded his complaint to the new oversight commission and to the Senate committee investigating Willis.