GOP senator targeted in Trump probe seeks to disqualify DA

The Republican nominee for lieutenant governor, who’s one of the targets of the Fulton County investigation into potential criminal interference in Georgia’s 2020 elections, is taking the probe’s top prosecutors to court on Thursday.

State Sen. Burt Jones, R-Jackson, is arguing that Fulton District Attorney Fani Willis and one of her top deputies should be disqualified from advising the special grand jury conducting the investigation regarding his actions in late 2020. That’s because they donated money to his Democratic opponent, Charlie Bailey. Willis also hosted a recent fundraiser for Bailey.

Willis says she’s done nothing improper and recently called Jones’ claims “meritless.”

“Jones has failed to identify any personal interest on behalf of the District Attorney or any other prosecutor that meets the legal criteria for disqualification,” Anna Green Cross, who’s representing the Fulton DA’s office, argued in a recent court filing.

Fulton Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney, who is overseeing the grand jury, will hear arguments on Thursday afternoon.

Jones is one of 16 Republicans who served as “alternate” presidential electors for Donald Trump in December 2020. All of them were recently subpoenaed by the special grand jury and informed by the DA’s office that they could be indicted.

The same day that news leaked to the press, Jones filed a motion to pull Willis, Special Prosecutor Nathan Wade and the entire Fulton DA’s office from the portion of the case involving himself.

His attorneys cited a June fundraiser that Willis held for Bailey’s campaign at a Southwest Atlanta grocery store not long after the grand jury was seated, as well as a $2,500 donation she made to his campaign in January. They also highlighted $2,000 that Wade gave to Bailey in 2021 before he switched from the attorney general to the lieutenant governor’s race.

“Their investigation of Mr. Jones in this case, by having him appear before a special purpose grand jury to testify about his conduct, is affected by political motivations evident by their joint interest in the success of Charles Bailey’s political campaign,” Jones’ attorneys, William Dillon and Hannah Clapp, wrote in a recent filing.

Short of disqualifying Willis or her office, Jones wants McBurney to seal the final recommendations of grand jury until after the November elections. (Willis told NBC News earlier this month that if the probe isn’t done by the time early voting begins in October, she’ll pause issuing any subpoenas or indictments until after the elections to avoid the perception of playing politics.)

Jeff DiSantis, a spokesman for Willis, said the DA is supporting Bailey because she worked with him in the Fulton DA’s office and “knows he will support law enforcement as Lieutenant Governor.”

“Her support for Mr. Bailey has nothing to do with his opponent, nor does her fulfillment of her oath of office to investigate and prosecute crimes occurring in Fulton County have anything to do with anyone else’s campaign for elected office,” he said.

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Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis talks to news media following a crime and public safety summit at Atlanta Metropolitan College on Wednesday, June 15, 2022. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis talks to news media following a crime and public safety summit at Atlanta Metropolitan College on Wednesday, June 15, 2022. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

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Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis talks to news media following a crime and public safety summit at Atlanta Metropolitan College on Wednesday, June 15, 2022. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

In a motion filed Tuesday, Cross argued that Jones was treated no differently than the 15 other alternate GOP electors who also received target letters. She said that the senator fell short in proving that Willis or Wade had legitimate conflicts of interest.

“Jones fails to point to a single action taken by District Attorney Willis or Special Prosecutor Wade that was motivated by political bias or personal interest, and consequently... falls far short of meeting his burden of establishing a ‘personal interest’ in the case such that disqualification is appropriate,” Cross wrote.

There are two main grounds for disqualifying a prosecutor from a case, according to the Prosecuting Attorney’s Council of Georgia: “forensic misconduct” or — more pertinent in this situation — a conflict of interest.

In 2005, when the Georgia Supreme Court upheld the bribery conviction of former state Corrections Commissioner Bobby Whitworth, the state high court said a conflict exists when “the prosecutor has acquired a personal interest or stake in the defendant’s conviction.” Also, an “actual conflict” must be involved and be more than a “theoretical or speculative conflict.”

Atlanta lawyer Jack Martin, who represented Whitworth, said he does not believe Jones’ arguments meet the threshold for disqualification.

“Just because she’s the district attorney, she’s still a Democrat,” Martin said, referring to Willis. “It’s a political position after all.”

He called Jones’ motion “a long shot” and predicted it will be rejected.

Stephen B. Bright, a professor at Yale Law School and the former director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, also doesn’t think McBurney will disqualify Willis or Wade from the investigation. But he called Willis’ fundraiser “a monumental blunder with regard to the special grand jury.”

“There were already people arguing that it was politically motivated and pointing out that (Willis) was a Democrat and that Fulton County was very Democratic,” Bright said. “This just feeds right in and in some ways validates that criticism. And it really undermines the legitimacy and credibility of the special grand jury’s work.”

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Democrat Charlie Bailey.

Credit: File

Democrat Charlie Bailey.

Credit: File

Combined ShapeCaption
Democrat Charlie Bailey.

Credit: File

Credit: File

Bailey has hammered Jones for his involvement in the electors scheme. He recently called the Republican’s actions “anti-American and unpatriotic” and said Jones was “unfit to serve in office.”

Jones spokesman Stephen Lawson said the senator has nothing to hide.

“Burt is more than happy to perform his civic duty and answer questions — but not from a prosecutor with such blatant conflicts of interest,” Lawson has said.

Nathan S. Chapman, a University of Georgia Law professor who focuses on professional responsibility, said “there’s going to be an opportunity for the other side to blame politics no matter what happens.”

“That’s simply not enough,” he said, “to justify removing a prosecutor.”

Staff writer Bill Rankin contributed to this article.