Fulton ethics board will take up complaints against Fani Willis

They are the latest in a battle over the DA’s relationship with Trump prosecutor, Nathan Wade

The Fulton County Board of Ethics will hear two complaints against District Attorney Fani Willis that question her conduct in the election interference case.

The complaints are unlikely to have much impact on the prosecution of former President Donald Trump and the 14 other defendants in the case. There is disagreement about whether the county ethics code even applies to Willis, who is a state constitutional officer. And even if she were found to have violated the county code, the penalty is only an administrative sanction of up to $1,000 and a public reprimand.

But they are the latest front in a battle that has raged since defendants in the election case sought last month to disqualify Willis for alleged misconduct. She is also facing Republican-led inquiries in both the state and U.S. Capitols.

One of the county complaints says Willis acted unethically by contracting with outside counsel Nathan Wade to prosecute the case against Trump and his allies. Willis and Wade have admitted they were romantically involved, and the complaint alleges Willis benefitted financially because Wade paid for vacations for the couple with money he earned from the case. Willis and Wade have said they split the cost of the trips roughly equally and deny they have done anything improper.

The other complaint says Willis has illegally refused to release certain records concerning Wade’s invoices under the Georgia Open Records Act.

Both of the Fulton County complaints will be heard at the ethics board’s March 7 meeting. A spokesman for Willis did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

At a hearing last week, the defense attorneys questioned key aspects of Willis’ and Wade’s accounts of their personal relationship – including when it began and whether Willis reimbursed Wade for their personal travel expenses.

Willis and Wade testified they did not become romantically involved until after she contracted with him to oversee the case in November 2021. A former friend and employee of Willis testified she saw them kissing, hugging and being affectionate in late 2019.

Willis and Wade also testified that she reimbursed him in cash for some trips and offset his expenses by paying for other activities, such as wine tastings, when they traveled. Defense attorneys noted they could produce no documentation of the cash reimbursements.

Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee is expected to schedule another hearing to allow each side to summarize their arguments before deciding whether to disqualify Willis and the entire DA’s office from prosecuting former Trump and the other 14 remaining defendants in the case.

But Superior Court isn’t the only venue where Willis is under fire.

The U.S. House Judiciary Committee has accused Willis of launching a political witch hunt against Trump – who is the likely Republican nominee for president this year (she, in turn, accused the committee of interfering in a criminal investigation). The committee recently subpoenaed records related to a whistleblower’s complaint about her office’s use of federal funds.

Meanwhile, a Georgia Senate committee has begun investigating Willis’ conduct in the election interference case. A newly created prosecutorial oversight board could take up a complaint against Willis. And U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Dalton, has asked state ethics officials to investigate Willis’ conduct.

Fulton County Commissioner Bob Ellis has also requested records from Willis for a potential audit.

Fulton County Commission Vice Chairman Bob Ellis speaks during the North Fulton Municipal Association meets at the North Fulton Chamber of Commerce office, Thursday, February 9, 2023, in Alpharetta, Ga.. 
Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

County resident Steven Kramer filed one of the ethics complaints, citing Willis’ relationship with Wade and the trips they took together. In a radio interview this week, Kramer indicated Willis should have disclosed Wade’s purchase of plane tickets, hotels and other expenses as gifts under the county ethics code.

“This is not good government,” Kramer said during the interview. “This is corruption.”

The second complaint was filed by internet-based talk show host Gregory Mantell. In a YouTube video, Mantell said Willis’ office had “illegally refused to release certain financial records concerning Nathan Wade’s invoices.” He said that seemed to be an attempt to cover up potential conflicts of interest, gifts from a contractor and any personal benefit she received from Wade’s contract.

It’s unclear whether Willis is subject to the county ethics code. Defense attorneys have cited potential violations of the code in their motions to disqualify Willis. But Pete Skandalakis, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys Council of Georgia, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last month he believes Willis is not subject to the county code because she is a state constitutional officer.

When asked last month whether the code applies to Willis, a Fulton County spokeswoman referred the question to the ethics board. Carrie Foster, the board’s secretary, said the code applies to county “officers and employees” but did not respond when asked whether it applies to Willis.

Foster did not immediately respond to another request Thursday to clarify whether the ethics code applies to Willis.

Staff Writer Jim Gaines contributed to this story