Pressure on Fulton DA grows as critics seize on allegations of impropriety

Willis is facing calls to step aside in Trump probe
DA of Fulton County Fani Willis speaks during a worship service at the Big Bethel AME Church, where she was invited to say The Message on Sunday, January 14, 2024. 
Miguel Martinez /

Credit: Miguel Martinez/AJC

Credit: Miguel Martinez/AJC

DA of Fulton County Fani Willis speaks during a worship service at the Big Bethel AME Church, where she was invited to say The Message on Sunday, January 14, 2024. Miguel Martinez /

Five months after she charged former President Donald Trump in a blockbuster election interference case, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is at what could be the most perilous moment of her career.

She is besieged by political enemies — from Trump to members of Congress and the Georgia legislature — who are using accusations of an improper workplace relationship to try to discredit a criminal case that many Georgians had already believed was politically motivated. Even some Democrats think the allegations are damaging and that Willis, special prosecutor Nathan Wade or both should consider resigning from the case to protect the integrity of the prosecution.

“Fulton County is prosecuting a former president of the United States,” said Rick Dent, a Democratic strategist. “Everything has to be above board, transparent and credible so that the American public will buy into what goes on in that courtroom.”

Next week could prove pivotal.

Willis’ office must file a response in Fulton County Superior Court by February 2 to claims the DA benefitted financially from a romantic relationship with Wade, whom she hired to lead the Trump investigation. And a hearing is scheduled Wednesday in the ongoing divorce proceedings of Wade and his estranged wife, Joycelyn, which could provide additional ammunition to critics. Records from the divorce have fueled the scandal.

Upping the pressure

Another blow to the DA came Friday, when the Republican-controlled Georgia Senate approved a resolution that creates a panel to investigate Willis. Though it would have no power to sanction her, the committee can subpoena witnesses and evidence, potentially dredging up embarrassing information. It will also have the rare authority to require that testimony be given under oath.

“As details continue to surface on a daily basis, it becomes more and more clear this was prosecution for personal profit,” said Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, during Friday’s debate. Beach raised questions about the integrity of Georgia’s 2020 vote in the aftermath of the election and delivered testimony to a special grand jury that Wade helped advise in 2022.

Sen. David Lucas, D-Macon, speaks in opposition of Senate Bill 465 as Lt. Gov. Burt Jones looks on on day 10 of the legislative session at The Georgia State Capitol on Friday, Jan. 26, 2024. The bill would create a special committee to investigate Fulton District Attorney Fani Willis. (Natrice Miller/

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

icon to expand image

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Democrats said lawmakers should let the judicial system resolve the allegations. Sen. David Lucas, D-Macon, blasted Republicans for indulging in what he called “bedroom politics.”

“Where was the special committee when the ex-president (Trump) called the secretary of state and said, ‘find me 11,000 votes?’” Lucas said. “You didn’t have a committee to investigate that.”

Georgia senators aren’t the only ones upping the pressure on Willis.

The House Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill has opened its own inquiry into the Wade allegations after spending months prodding Willis for information about the Trump case. Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene on Thursday filed a complaint with the State Ethics Commission. Now even the Democratic-majority Fulton County Board of Commissioners is asking questions.

Dizzying developments

The allegations against Willis first came to light in a Jan. 8 court filing from Trump co-defendant Michael Roman who argued the DA’s alleged relationship with Wade should disqualify her entire office from pursuing the election interference probe.

On Thursday, Trump’s legal team joined Roman’s call for Fulton Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee, who is overseeing the case, to drop the charges against them. On Friday, defendant Bob Cheeley filed his own motion to disqualify Willis, citing the Wade allegations. The judge has set a hearing for February 15 on Roman’s original motion.

In a court filing Thursday, Trump accused Willis of trying to unfairly prejudice a future jury by using a “glaring, flagrant, and calculated effort to foment racial bias into this case.”

It’s a dizzying set of developments for a veteran prosecutor who just a few weeks ago was basking in the early successes of the case.

In August, Willis charged Trump and 18 codefendants for allegedly participating in an illegal scheme to overturn Democrat Joe Biden’s 2020 victory in Georgia. Her team has already secured four guilty pleas. It also has fended off efforts transfer the case to federal court – where defendants such as Trump might get a more favorable jury – and a slew of motions to dismiss the charges on various grounds.

Willis was one of the finalists for Time’s Person of the Year and her name was often mentioned as a candidate for higher office.

‘Mishandled from the get-go’

But over the last three weeks Willis has been on the defensive as records have emerged showing Wade purchased plane tickets for himself and Willis to San Francisco, Miami and Aruba. Willis hired Wade as special prosecutor in the Trump case on Nov. 1, 2021, and he has been paid more than $650,000 so far for his work, records show.

Willis’ only public comments about the claims came in a recent Martin Luther King Jr. Day service at downtown’s Big Bethel AME Church. She didn’t address the relationship accusations head-on but defended Wade, who is also Black, and accused her critics of playing the “race card.” A spokesman has said the DA will respond to the allegations in the upcoming court filing.

Dent said the official silence from the DA’s office is a mistake. He said Willis faces a political and public relations challenge — not just a legal one.

“When there is silence, all your enemies, all your detractors and the general public will fill in the blank,” Dent said. “I think it’s been mishandled from the get-go. It’s just been awful.”

Fulton pushback

Even Fulton County officials have started to push back.

County Commissioner Bob Ellis, a Republican, requested documents last week to audit Willis’ payments to Wade. And on Wednesday the Democratic-controlled commission voted 6-1 to table an unrelated request from Willis: to spend $611,020 on new vehicles for her office.

Among other things, Republican Commissioner Bridget Thorne cited the Wade allegations and said she wanted to hold the funding until after an audit of the DA’s office.

“She’s been asked to comment on [the allegations]. She has not,” Thorne said Wednesday of Willis. “And it is our fiduciary responsibility to make sure the taxpayers’ dollars are spent wisely.”

Legal experts say it’s unlikely the accusations merit Willis’ disqualification from the Trump case. Former DeKalb County DA Robert James said they “reek of smear and mudslinging.”

Supporters of  Former President Donald Trump react as Fulton County DA Fani Willis is shown on TV monitor in background during Team Trump Iowa Campaign event ahead of Iowa Caucus at ShinyTop Brewery, Monday, January 15, 2024, in Fort Dodge, Iowa. (Hyosub Shin /


icon to expand image


But they could still undermine the criminal case even if McAfee rules in Willis’ favor. James believes the allegations could influence a jury pool to decide the case based on their feelings about Willis, rather than the evidence against the defendants.

“It’s not what they’re supposed to do, but it’s what happens oftentimes when you charge celebrities or public officials, or the president of the United States, a former president of the United States,” James said.

Calls for resignation

Some Willis supporters believe Wade should resign.

“I think the only thing that can cure the situation is either the resignation or removal of (Wade),” said Buddy Darden, a former Cobb County DA and Democratic congressman. “It’s not a personal criticism of him, but it’s a very serious distraction.”

Darden said Willis, as an elected constitutional officer, has a duty to Fulton voters to stay for the duration of her 4-year term. She’s up for re-election this fall.

Others believe Willis herself should go. Georgia State University law professor Clark Cunningham said Willis should consider taking a leave of absence, allowing a top deputy to prosecute the case and consider terminating Wade’s contract.

Special Prosecutor Nathan Wade, representing the District Attorney's office, argued before Fulton County Superior Judge Scott McAfee who heard motions from attorneys representing Ken Chesebro and Sidney Powell in Atlanta on Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2023.   (AP photo/Jason Getz, Pool )

Credit: Jason Getz/AJC

icon to expand image

Credit: Jason Getz/AJC

Dent, the political strategist, said both Willis and Wade should step aside. And he said Fulton County should audit the district attorney’s spending to prove nothing improper happened.

Most of Willis’ Democratic allies have stayed silent as they wait for her to weigh in more directly. That angers Mike Koblentz, a neighborhood activist who’s been a longtime political supporter of the DA.

On the day that Roman’s allegations surfaced, Koblentz donated money to Willis’ campaign as a show of support. He believes the DA and her team are not being given enough credit for ably steering the Trump case over the last several years.

“They’ve been incredibly competent against a lot of really good attorneys over the last year and a half,” he said. Now Democratic leaders are “leaving her twisting in the wind.”

Staff Writer Jim Gaines contributed to this report