Could Fani Willis allegations sink Georgia’s Trump election interference case?

The motion, filed Monday by Trump co-defendant Michael Roman, alleged that Willis and special prosecutor Nathan Wade “have been engaged in an improper, clandestine personal relationship during the pendency of this case.” It also contended that Wade had paid for lavish vacations that he and Willis took with the money his law office was paid for his work on the election interference case.

ExploreNew Willis allegations energize critics of Fulton Trump probe

Some experts thought these allegations could complicate, or even stymie, the case against the former president, while others in the legal community dismissed the idea.

Former DeKalb County District Attorney Bob Wilson declined to comment on the allegations but said DAs, particularly those pursuing such a high-profile case like the Trump prosecution, have to be exceedingly careful.

“Everything you do must be done according to the law,” said Wilson, now a private attorney. “Everyone who works on a case like this must conduct themselves at the highest professional level. Otherwise, you can become the issue and that can derail your case.”

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In her motion, Roman’s lawyer, Ashleigh Merchant, questioned Wade’s qualifications, saying she could find no proof he had ever prosecuted a felony case. On Tuesday, Cobb County officials said he briefly worked as an assistant solicitor in the Cobb Solicitor’s Office, which prosecutes misdemeanors, in 1999.

The accusations also raise questions of whether Willis allegedly violated any ethics policies.

Just a few blocks away from the Fulton courthouse, at the state Capitol, Republican state lawmakers on Tuesday used the fresh claims to renew a push for more prosecutorial oversight. And Trump crowed about the claims on Truth Social, his media platform.

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Andrew Fleischman, a criminal defense attorney in Atlanta, said if the allegations are true the arrangement would be a clear violation of the State Bar of Georgia’s code of ethics for lawyers.

“If you are giving money to somebody who appears to be unqualified, and they are giving you some of that money back in the form of summer vacations, then you’re financially benefiting from your prosecution,” he said. “That’s a conflict of interest.”

The Fulton County Code of Ethics says that officials should aspire to avoid “even the appearance of a conflict of interest,” by avoiding conduct or circumstances that could create the wrong impression.

Fleischman, for his part, said he did not think Roman’s motion will lead to the dismissal of the indictment. But if Willis is found to have a conflict of interest, the entire DA’s office could be disqualified, he said.

In her motion, Merchant indicated she was relying in part from information she gleaned from a Cobb County Superior Court file involving Wade’s divorce case with his wife. On Monday, a court filing in the case noted that attorneys for Jocelyn Wade plan to take Willis’ deposition on Jan. 23. Another court filing, from December, said a subpoena had been served on the DA’s office for the production of unspecified documents.

For the second straight day, the DA’s office has declined to comment on the allegations, and says it will respond “through appropriate court filings.” Wade has not responded to a request for comment.

Roman’s court motion, now before Judge Scott McAfee, asks that the case against him be dismissed and that Willis, Wade and the Fulton DA’s office be disqualified from any further involvement in the case. Roman was indicted on grounds he helped organize slates of Trump electors in battleground states won by Democrat Joe Biden, including Georgia. He pleaded not guilty.

ExploreFiling alleges ‘improper’ relationship between Fulton DA, top Trump prosecutor

Up to now, the only perceived misstep Willis made in the case was holding a fundraiser for Charlie Bailey, a former colleague who became the Democratic opponent of Republican Burt Jones in the race for lieutenant governor. Jones, who won the race, had been named a target of the probe because he was one of 16 Republicans who served as Electoral College electors for Trump in December 2020.

Finding a conflict, Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney disqualified Willis and the Fulton DA’s office from any further investigation of Jones.

Steve Bright, the former director of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, said the Jones’ controversy pales in comparison to the new allegations lodged in Roman’s motion.

“If this is true, it goes way beyond the monumentally bad judgment that she had in having a fundraiser for the guy running against Burt Jones when she was investigating Jones,” said Bright, a professor at Yale and Georgetown law schools. “It’s hard to see how the prosecution survives this.”

But Pete Skandalakis, head of the Prosecuting Attorneys Council of Georgia, said, “I’d be surprised,” when asked if he thought the allegations would sink the case.

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He also disagreed with the motion’s assertion that Wade was improperly serving as a special prosecutor because Willis did not get the appointment approved by the county’s Board of Commissioners. “I don’t see anything where she has violated a Georgia statute on the matter,” Skandalakis said.

Even though Willis has been criticized for approving nearly $624,000 in legal fees for Wade since January 2022, that is her prerogative, Skandalakis said. “A district attorney can use the funds allocated to the office by the county commissioners as he or she sees fit.”

When asked Tuesday about the situation, Fulton County Commission Chairman Robb Pitts seemed to agree.

“Typically the county attorney recommends outside counsel to the board of commissioners for approval in civil matters — that’s the distinction,” he said. “This situation involves a special prosecutor. And with respect to a special prosecutor, the district attorney has the authority and the right to hire such a person.”

Atlanta criminal defense lawyer Noah Pines said that while “the allegations of the affair are salacious, I don’t know if that disqualifies anybody from prosecuting the case.”

But the amount of money being paid to Wade, who is billing at $250 an hour, is bad optics, he said.

“She’s paying him double what others in that office are making, seemingly without justification,” Pines said. “It just doesn’t look good.”

Staff writers Jim Gaines and Rosie Manins contributed to this article.

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