OPINION: The Fani Willis scandal is putting all DAs in Georgia under the microscope


                        FILE — Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis appears with special prosecutor Nathan Wade during a press briefing to announce the indictment of former President Donald Trump, in Atlanta on Aug. 14, 2023. The claim that Willis had a relationship with the special prosecutor she hired, Nathan Wade, surfaced on Jan. 8 in a filing from Michael Roman, one of Trump’s co-defendants. (Kenny Holston/The New York Times)

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FILE — Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis appears with special prosecutor Nathan Wade during a press briefing to announce the indictment of former President Donald Trump, in Atlanta on Aug. 14, 2023. The claim that Willis had a relationship with the special prosecutor she hired, Nathan Wade, surfaced on Jan. 8 in a filing from Michael Roman, one of Trump’s co-defendants. (Kenny Holston/The New York Times)

The Fani Willis scandal has everything in it for the people rooting for her to fail — an alleged affair, a trip to Aruba, a Napa Valley getaway, and a $600,000-plus price tag of taxpayers’ dollars for just a portion of her case against former President Donald Trump.

But the allegations, which Willis has still never addressed, aren’t just threatening the integrity of the case against Trump. They are opening the door to a GOP-led effort to give lawmakers expansive subpoena and investigative powers directly over Willis’ office. They are also establishing a precedent of lawmakers investigating nearly anything and anyone associated with the state of Georgia, including locally elected District Attorneys, long after the Willis affair has come and gone.

The intensified interest in Willis and her office is understandable. But it’s also wildly out of step with the Legislature’s interest, or lack of interest, in getting involved in previous cases of alleged DA misconduct. It’s proved easier for the General Assembly to be offended by the Willis affair than by a white DA helping out a friend who shot a Black man in Brunswick. Or by a DA in Columbus accused of paying off assistant prosecutors for false testimony in a murder case.

Those incidents were so serious that both prosecutors were criminally charged by Georgia Attorney Chris Carr for violation of oath of office and multiple other crimes.

While some members of the Legislature spoke out against Mark Jones, the former Columbus prosecutor, and Jackie Johnson, the former DA in Brunswick who mishandled the Ahmaud Arbery case, lawmakers never created a commission to oversee all DAs in the state after those shameful incidents. And the state Senate never created a special committee to investigate them and their offices. But this week, the Legislature did both.

One came in the state House Monday when Republicans passed a measure to eliminate the state Supreme Court’s role in approving rules for the newly created Prosecuting Attorneys Qualifications Commission.

Lawmakers created the commission to oversee local DAs last year, as the Fulton County case against Trump was intensifying, and gave the state Supreme Court the job of signing off on the rules for the Republican-appointed panel. Since the Supreme Court ruled it doesn’t have the authority to do that, the House voted this week to eliminate the approval process entirely. Complaints against Willis have already been filed, but the commission and its powers will go on in perpetuity.

Over in the state Senate, Republicans voted Friday to create a special Senate investigative committee to look at Willis, her relationship with special prosecutor Nathan Wade, and her office’s trips, expenditures, and operations. Unlike most Senate committees, the panel will have subpoena power to compel witnesses to testify and produce documents.

The investigative panel is limited to Willis’ conduct, for now. But like the Prosecuting Attorneys Qualifications Commission, it puts all DAs on notice that an investigation could be waiting around the corner for them, too. It could also serve to tie up Willis, Wade, and their own offices with another external investigation of their activities, along with the expected investigation by the qualifications commission, while they are working toward a trial and conviction of President Trump later this year.

You can’t blame the Republicans, some of whom have been trying since 2021 to stop Willis from prosecuting Trump and have been in Willis’ sites themselves, for exploiting an opportunity when they see it. Willis’ failure to respond to the allegations against her has created that opportunity.

The debates over both measures included warnings from Democrats that the investigations Republicans are pursuing will come at a cost, not just to Willis, but to all local prosecutors, who will now need to look over their shoulders for a state panel that may be more motivated by their politics than their prosecutorial records.

State Rep. Shae Roberts, D-Atlanta, warned the bill will be “weaponized” for political purposes, no matter which party is in charge down the road.

“I can’t help but assume supporters of this legislation only want DA’s prosecuting who and what crimes they want,” she said.

State Sen. Josh McLaurin, D-Sandy Springs, said his chamber is “on a dangerous path” and warned Republicans that feeding their base with bills to go after Willis will never satisfy them.

Those warnings went unheeded. State Sen. Matt Brass, a Republican from Newnan, said it’s not about the sex, it’s about the money. “This has to do with following state funds. We want to know, where is our money going?” he said during the Senate debate.

State Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, who is a staunch support of Trump, stepped up to the well to describe Willis’ hiring of Wade and the nine-month special grand jury investigation that followed as “prosecution for personal profit.” The investigation went on, he contended, so that Wade could keep billing more hours. “It’s a fraud against the court and a fraud against you, the Ga taxpayer,” he said.

With the end of the Willis scandal nowhere in sight, and power to pass both measures in hand, Republicans did just that. They also plan to investigate conditions at the Fulton County Jail, which GOP lawmakers have linked to Willis’ docket. And a U.S. House panel has launched an investigation into alleged “collusion” between Willis’ office and the Department of Justice.

It’s all meant to put Willis and her pursuit of Trump under the microscope. But the precedent is being set for every prosecutor in Georgia long after this episode is over and done.

Atlanta District Attorney Fani Willis answers questions for the press after the indictment of former president Donald Trump and 18 others at Fulton County Courthouse on Monday, Aug. 14, 2023, in Atlanta. (Michael Blackshire/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

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Rudy Giuliani's lawyer Bill Thomas (left) and prosecutor Nathan Wade talk after a hearing in Fulton County Superior Court on Thursday, Aug. 9, 2022. (Steve Schaefer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

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