In fiery testimony, Willis defends herself against accusations of misconduct

Ex-employee claims relationship began earlier than acknowledged

District Attorney Fani Willis Thursday accused defense lawyers of lying about her romantic relationship with a subordinate in an attempt to use her personal life to derail Fulton County’s election subversion case.

In combative and impromptu testimony in Fulton County Superior Court that seemed to surprise even members of her own team, Willis said she and special prosecutor Nathan Wade became romantically involved months after she hired him to oversee the prosecution. She said she paid her own way — often in cash — when they traveled together and did nothing improper as the relationship continued and she prepared for one of the most important criminal prosecutions in the country.

In a series of contentious exchanges, Willis and various defense attorneys sometimes talked over each other, prompting Fulton Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee to intervene to restore decorum. Willis accused the defense attorneys of delving into her personal life to change the focus from the alleged crimes committed by clients.

“You’re confused. You think I’m on trial,” Willis told Ashleigh Merchant, the attorney who exposed the Willis-Wade relationship. “These (defendants) are on trial for trying to steal an election in 2020. I’m not on trial, no matter how hard you try to put me on trial.”

‘No doubt’

Willis’ testimony capped a dramatic day-long hearing on Merchant’s motion to have Willis and the entire Fulton DA’s office disqualified from prosecuting the case. On behalf of her client, defendant Michael Roman, Merchant said Wade and Willis had benefitted financially from the prosecution.

Wade has made more than $728,000 for his work on the case since Willis hired him in November 2021. In court filings, Merchant said Willis also benefitted from hiring Wade because he paid for several vacations to Belize, Aruba and Napa Valley, among other places.

Thursday’s hearing provided the first chance for the parties to testify under oath in open court. Early in the day, a former friend of Willis, Robin Bryant Yeartie, testified that Willis told her she and Wade were romantically involved before the DA hired him to oversee the election interference case in November 2021.

Her timeline contradicted one Wade laid out in affidavit earlier this month where he said his relationship with Willis only became personal in 2022.

Yeartie testified she saw Willis and Wade hug, kiss and be affectionate as early as the end of 2019. She also said there’s “no doubt” that the relationship continued until Yeartie last spoke with Willis in March 2022, when Yeartie resigned from the DA’s office after contending with complaints about her performance.

The conflicting accounts led McAfee to allow Merchant to call Wade to the witness stand. The special prosecutor reiterated that he and Willis did not become romantically involved until around March 2022 – about five months after Willis hired him.

Fulton County Special Prosecutor Nathan Wade testifies during a hearing in the case of the State of Georgia v. Donald John Trump at the Fulton County Courthouse on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024 in Atlanta. Judge Scott McAfee is hearing testimony as to whether District Attorney Fani Willis and Wade should be disqualified from the case for allegedly lying about a personal relationship. (Alyssa Pointer/Pool/Getty Images/TNS)

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Wade testified that he met Willis at a judicial conference in October 2019 and they developed a professional relationship as she sought his advice on judicial and election matters as she learned the ropes of being a municipal judge and later campaigned for district attorney.

Merchant confronted Wade with bank records that showed he had paid for plane tickets, hotels and other expenses for various trips. But Wade testified that Willis reimbursed him for thousands of dollars in expenses with cash for some of the trips – including the trip to Belize, which he said was a birthday present from Willis.

Wade also testified that Willis paid for meals and other expenses on trips in lieu of reimbursing him for other expenses. He said they split the cost of their travel roughly evenly.

‘It’s a lie’

Wade wore a tight smile and was relatively subdued on the stand. But Willis, wearing a hot pink dress, came out swinging. Among other things, she accused Merchant of lying about her in court documents – including a suggestion that Wade stayed the night with her at a condo she leased from Yeartie. Willis said Wade never spent the night there.

“It’s a lie,” she said.

And she bristled at Merchant’s suggestion that she and Wade had become intimate when they first met in 2019.

“It’s highly offensive,” she said.

Willis also sparred with Steve Sadow, an attorney for former President Donald Trump. He asked her why she didn’t disclose her romantic relationship with Wade to any of the other prosecutors on the case.

“That’s my private life. It’s not any mystery to anyone,” she responded. “It’s like a woman doesn’t have a right to keep her private life private?”

Willis is expected to take the stand again on Friday under cross-examination from members of her own team. The DA’s team said it expects to call three or four other witnesses, including Willis’ father, John Clifford Floyd III.

The witness who testified first, Terrence Bradley, ended up speaking only briefly from the witness stand. Bradley, Wade’s former law partner and who had at one point represented Wade in his divorce case, cited attorney-client privilege.

Several curious case defendants — including former Georgia GOP Chairman David Shafer, publicist Trevian Kutti and onetime Black Voices for Trump head Harrison Floyd — also opted to attend the hearing in person.