Atlanta DA admits a relationship with Trump case prosecutor but defends her actions

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis speaks in Atlanta on Aug. 14, 2023, after former President Donald Trump and his allies were indicted on state charges. At right is special prosecutor Nathan Wade. A personal relationship between Willis and Wade is at the center of misconduct claims against the DA’s office.

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Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis speaks in Atlanta on Aug. 14, 2023, after former President Donald Trump and his allies were indicted on state charges. At right is special prosecutor Nathan Wade. A personal relationship between Willis and Wade is at the center of misconduct claims against the DA’s office.

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ATLANTA — Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is strongly pushing back against claims she violated federal law and ethical standards by having a personal relationship with a lead prosecutor on the 2020 election interference case against former President Donald Trump and others.

In a court filing Friday, Willis said the relationship with Nathan Wade, who was hired to work the case in 2021, did not begin until 2022 and allegations that the pair financially benefit from prosecuting the case are “meritless,” asking that a judge dismiss a motion filed last month to dismiss the charges.

“To be absolutely clear, the personal relationship between Special Prosecutor Wade and District Attorney Willis has never involved direct or indirect financial benefit to District Attorney Willis,” the filing reads. “Defendants have produced no evidence to suggest that there is any circumstance that would constitute a financial incentive on the District Attorney’s part to pursue a conviction in this case through the appointment of Special Prosecutor Wade.”

According to the Jan. 8 motion, Wade has been paid more than $600,000 since 2021 for his work on the case, which primarily included overseeing a months-long special purpose grand jury process behind closed doors that investigated the failed attempt to overturn Georgia’s 2020 presidential results by Trump and his allies.

The allegations of a romantic relationship between Willis and Wade were filed by former Trump campaign official Mike Roman as part of a motion to dismiss charges against him and remove the DA’s office from any involvement with the case.

Lawyers for Trump and fellow codefendant Bob Cheeley have since also joined on to the request. Trump, Cheeley and Roman have pleaded not guilty to the charges against them.

Judges push back against Trump's immunity claim in the election interference case

Roman’s charges include racketeering, and the motion to dismiss them argues that Willis and Wade themselves violated federal racketeering law and financially benefit from prosecuting Trump and his allies because of this alleged relationship.

The motion also argued that Wade failed to file his oath of office before working on the case and that his hiring was never approved by county commissioners, nullifying the felony charges stemming from Roman’s involvement in a scheme to send a falsified slate of presidential electors to Congress.

Friday’s filing rebuts those claims. A hearing over the matter is scheduled for Feb. 15.

Plane tickets as alleged evidence

The political and optical implications of the allegations — and Willis’ lack of response until now — have dominated headlines of an already-high-profile case against the former president in recent weeks.

Much of the initial 127-page motion written by Ashleigh Merchant, Roman’s attorney, contained innuendo and implications of wrongdoing by Willis and Wade without accompanying evidence, citing “sources” that confirmed a relationship and speculating about why Wade was hired.

Willis defended his qualifications, including in Friday’s response several awards and honors Wade received and a purported screenshot of a social media post in which Merchant previously campaigned for Wade in a prior run for office.

Roman’s filing also said that Wade’s divorce proceedings, then filed under seal, would provide corroborating evidence about the alleged relationship, in addition to financial records that showed Wade and Willis traveled together at different times.

Credit card statements released in the divorce case show two plane tickets, one to Miami and one to San Francisco, that Wade purchased for himself and in Willis’ name.

The DA said that “expenses for personal travel were roughly divided equally between us.”

Wade’s divorce docket, unsealed last week, does not show any further evidence of a relationship with the district attorney, but does show a bitter fight over money and financial statements with Jocelyn Wade, his estranged wife, who said in court documents she is unemployed.

The divorce case was temporarily settled just before a Jan. 31 hearing that could have seen Nathan Wade answer questions about Jocelyn Wade’s claims of an affair between the two prosecutors.

Fulton County special prosecutor Nathan Wade speaks during a hearing in the 2020 Georgia election interference case on Dec. 1, 2023.

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Attacks on Willis and the case continue

Even if a judge does not dismiss the charges or remove Willis from the case, the allegations against her have set off the latest attack on Willis and the case.

Steve Sadow, one of Trump’s lawyers in Georgia, initially declined to sign on to the motion against Willis, calling the filing “salacious and scandalous in nature” at a recent hearing over different motions. But after Willis used an appearance at a Martin Luther King Jr. church service in January to suggest criticism of Wade came because he was Black, Sadow and co-counsel Jennifer Little joined in on the motion to dismiss and blasted Willis’ remarks.

“[T]he DA’s self-serving comments came with the added, sought after, benefit of garnering racially based sympathy for her self-inflicted quagmire,” they wrote in a motion last week.

Trump himself has seized on the allegations as the latest opportunity to bash the case and has called Willis “totally compromised.”

It’s not the first time the former president or his allies have attacked Willis and sought to discredit the charges and derail the investigation into the failed effort to overturn Georgia’s 2020 election results.

House Judiciary Chair Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, has sent several letters to Willis as part of an investigation into alleged “collusion” between Fulton County and the House committee that investigated the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Most recently, Jordan sent a letter on Jan. 12 to Wade demanding documents related to alleged “improper coordination among politicized actors” surrounding the case.

And on Friday, Jordan subpoenaed Willis for documents related to a firing of a staffer after it was alleged that she misused federal grant money. Willis on Friday said those allegations are “false.”

Following the claims made about Willis, the chorus of opposition to one of the more high-profile criminal cases against Trump has grown louder.

Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Trump ally, sent a letter to Georgia’s governor and attorney general demanding a criminal investigation of the Fulton County district attorney.

Georgia’s Republican-led state Senate, home to many lawmakers who aided Trump’s election meddling efforts, approved a special committee to investigate Willis that has little power to act against her but may seek to subpoena testimony seeking to derail the case.

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