Fani Willis Faces Upheaval in Trump Georgia Inquiry

Nearly three years after she began investigating former President Donald J. Trump and his allies, Fani T. Willis is facing the biggest test of her handling of the landmark election interference case.

Ms. Willis, the district attorney of Fulton County, Ga., was accused this week of being romantically involved with the lead prosecutor she hired for the Trump case, a turn of events that has invigorated Republicans and raised a flurry of questions about her conduct and judgment. The prosecutor, Nathan Wade, has reaped more than $650,000 in legal fees.

While many legal experts doubt that the accusations — if true — will derail the case, they could present significant problems for Ms. Willis and create distractions around the case. The allegations have already created a firestorm on the political right, with Mr. Trump and his allies accusing her of violating a raft of county and state laws. They have even given pause to some Democrats.

“If the allegations are true — and it’s a big if — it’s troubling,” Robb Pitts, a Democrat who is chair of the Fulton County Board of Commissioners, said in an interview this week. “To have this come up at this point in time, and at this point in this trial, can raise questions.”

The allegations, which were lodged without supporting documents or named witnesses, surfaced in a court filing on Monday from a lawyer for Michael Roman, a former Trump campaign staff member who faces charges in the case along with Mr. Trump and 13 others.

The filing suggested that the relationship was the reason Ms. Willis had chosen Mr. Wade, who had never led a high-profile criminal case and had largely worked as a suburban defense lawyer and municipal judge.

The filing alleges that Ms. Willis profited from Mr. Wade’s earnings from her office — taxpayer funds — by going with him on vacations that he sometimes paid for.

The day after Mr. Wade started work for the district attorney’s office in 2022, he filed for divorce. Lawyers for his wife, Joycelyn, issued a subpoena this week to Ms. Willis, seeking her appearance on Jan. 23 in a divorce action that is in progress.

While the court papers did not include any proof of the relationship between the prosecutors, they assert that the two have been seen “in a personal relationship capacity” around Atlanta and claim that people close to both of them have confirmed their relationship.

Mr. Roman’s lawyer, Ashleigh Merchant, is seeking to unseal filings in the Wade divorce case.

Amid the tumult, Ms. Willis’s office has not denied the allegations and has made little comment beyond saying that it will respond in a court filing. For days now, that has left a series of serious unanswered questions about the potential consequences and legal fallout.

“I would be surprised if any of this requires dismissing the indictment,” said Nathan S. Chapman, a law professor at the University of Georgia who teaches a course on ethics issues, “but if the allegations are true, it’s a pretty disastrous own goal by team Willis.”

He added that while he was not an expert on Georgia laws against public corruption, “I would not at all be surprised that the conduct violates some of those laws.”

Mr. Roman’s filing accuses Ms. Willis of violating Fulton County laws related to conflicts of interest and nepotism. But the passage on nepotism applies to family members; the county’s definition does not appear to encompass romantic partners.

A county spokeswoman, Jessica Corbitt, said that she was not aware of any investigation or complaint filed with the county commission but that such matters were more likely to be the domain of the county’s ethics board. The board’s secretary did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Among the allegations in Mr. Roman’s filing is that some county funds earmarked to clear a backlog of cases that had built up during the pandemic were instead used to pay Mr. Wade. Mr. Pitts, the chairman of the county commission, said that the county was looking into it.

Mr. Trump has used the allegations to renew attacks on the Georgia prosecution in a series of social media posts. One of his most fervent supporters in Congress, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, Republican of Georgia, asked the state’s governor and its attorney general on Wednesday to investigate the matter of Mr. Wade’s appointment. Gov. Brian Kemp has generally not been critical of Ms. Willis’s investigation thus far.

Ms. Greene laid out a number of state laws that she said Ms. Willis had potentially violated, including laws on bribery, improper influence of a government official and conspiracy to defraud the government. It wasn’t immediately clear how some of those laws would apply; the bribery statute appears largely aimed at payoffs made to or solicited by public officials.

But Ms. Greene and others also pointed to the oath taken by district attorneys in Georgia, in which they pledge to take only their “lawful compensation.” If Ms. Willis benefited from the money paid to Mr. Wade, “she violated her oath and many Georgia criminal statutes,” Ms. Greene said in her letter to Mr. Kemp.

Ms. Merchant’s motion seeks to remove Mr. Wade, Ms. Willis and the entire district attorney’s office from the case — and to dismiss it. But some of her key arguments may face an uphill battle. Ms. Merchant said that Ms. Willis had not obtained the proper approval from the county when she hired Mr. Wade. But the Fulton County attorney, Soo Jo, said this week that Ms. Willis had not needed the county commission’s approval to hire Mr. Wade.

Ms. Merchant also argued that Mr. Wade is unqualified. Yet she praised Mr. Wade’s “robust legal background” on Facebook in 2016, when she was supporting him in one of his failed bids to be elected as a Superior Court judge.

“Nathan has practiced in every area of the law that appears before the Superior Court bench,” she wrote. Another post features a photo of her posing in a Wade campaign T-shirt.

Asked about the posts on Thursday, Ms. Merchant said, “Nathan Wade was the most qualified candidate in that race.”

Another challenge for Ms. Willis will be a new Georgia commission established last year by the state’s Republican leaders to oversee local prosecutors. Ms. Willis bitterly opposed its creation.

The commission currently has no authority because of a recent court ruling, but Republican lawmakers are crafting legislation to rectify that.

Even before the allegations surfaced this week, a group of conservative lawmakers had indicated that they intended to file a complaint with the new commission, arguing that Ms. Willis was failing to address a backlog of cases while spending money to “prosecute politically motivated cases.”

Josh McKoon, the chairman of the Georgia Republican Party, said this week that he expected the new allegations to form the basis of a fresh complaint and to hasten lawmakers’ efforts to fix the issues that are keeping the new commission from starting its work.

“I suspect a complaint will be filed,” Mr. McKoon said. “I also expect the legislature is going to move with a great deal of speed to address these technicalities so the commission can get to work.”

On social media this week, Mr. McKoon, a lawyer and a former legislator, called for all criminal proceedings in the Trump case to be put on hold while the allegations against Ms. Willis and Mr. Wade were investigated.

Clark D. Cunningham, a professor of law and ethics at Georgia State University, called the new claims “very serious accusations” and said that the new commission would be a good venue for examining them. He noted that the body’s draft rules give it the power to investigate and discipline prosecutors for “conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice which brings the office into disrepute.”

It is unclear if any of this will affect the timing of a trial in the Trump case. Ms. Willis has sought an Aug. 5 start date, but the presiding judge, Scott McAfee of Fulton County Superior Court, has yet to set a date. Ms. Willis recently predicted that any trial would not finish until next year.

Her next major move will be to file a response to the allegations. At that point, Judge McAfee may decide to hold an evidentiary hearing. If a hearing takes place, Ms. Merchant could offer witnesses who she says can help corroborate the allegations of an affair. Like nearly all proceedings in the case, such a hearing would be broadcast live.

A hearing date to unseal the Wade divorce papers is set for Jan. 31 in Cobb County. But some discussion of the Roman filing is likely to come up in hearings set for Friday in downtown Atlanta.

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