ATLANTA (AP) — Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis acknowledged in a court filing on Friday having a “personal relationship” with a special prosecutor she hired for the Georgia election interference case against former President Donald Trump but argued there are no grounds to dismiss the case or to remove her from the prosecution.
Willis hired special prosecutor Nathan Wade in November 2021 to assist her investigation into whether the Republican ex-president and others broke any laws as they tried to overturn his loss in the 2020 presidential election in Georgia. Since Trump and 18 others were indicted in August, Wade has led the team of lawyers Willis assembled to prosecute the case.
Among the acts listed in the indictment was a Jan. 2, 2021, phone call in which Trump urged fellow Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to help “find” the 11,780 votes needed to overturn his election loss to Democrat Joe Biden. Trump has pleaded not guilty, and his attorneys have said he was within his rights to challenge election results.
The filing was the first time that Willis or Wade has directly addressed the allegations of a relationship in the nearly four weeks since they first surfaced in a filing by a defendant in the election case. In an affidavit accompanying the filing, Wade said that in 2022, he and the district attorney had developed a personal relationship in addition to their “professional association and friendship.”
But he also said that he had never lived with Willis or shared a financial account or household expenses with her. He said that none of the funds paid to him as part of the job have been shared with Willis, an attempt to undercut defense lawyer claims of a conflict of interest.
Wade described himself and Willis as “both financially independent professionals; expenses or personal travel were roughly divided equally between us."
“At times,” Wade said, "I have made and purchased travel for District Attorney Willis and myself from my personal funds. At other times District Attorney Willis has made and purchased travel for she and I from her personal funds.”
“I have no financial interest in the outcome of the 2020 election interference case or in the conviction of any defendant,” he wrote.
The Friday filing by Willis’ team came in response to a motion filed last month by defense attorney Ashleigh Merchant, who represents Trump co-defendant Michael Roman. The motion alleged that Willis and Wade were in an inappropriate romantic relationship that created a conflict of interest. It said Willis personally profited from the case, saying she had paid Wade more than $650,000 for his work and then benefited when Wade used his earnings to pay for vacations the pair took together.
Roman asked the judge to dismiss the case and to have Willis and Wade and their offices barred from further prosecuting the case. Trump and at least one other co-defendant, Georgia attorney Robert Cheeley, have filed motions to join Roman’s effort to dismiss the indictment and remove Willis from the case.
Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee, who’s presiding over the election case, has set a Feb. 15 hearing on Roman’s motion. Willis and Wade are among a dozen witnesses Merchant has subpoenaed to testify at that hearing, and Friday's filing says the district attorney plans to ask McAfee to toss out those subpoenas.
The Friday filing asks McAfee to dismiss the motions without a hearing, saying they “have no merit.”
Steve Sadow, Trump’s lead attorney in the Georgia case, said Willis is asking the judge “to turn a blind eye to her alleged personal and financial misconduct” and says her only goal is to stop the Feb. 15 hearing. Though she admitted to the relationship, Sadow said, “she fails to provide full transparency and necessary financial details.”
Merchant filed an initial response to the prosecution filing Friday. She argued that a hearing is needed because Roman has the right to cross-examine and test the prosecution's claims. She listed questions she would ask Wade that suggest she believes his relationship with Willis began earlier than he asserted and that the pair had lived together at certain times.
Willis’ team’s filing argues that Willis has no financial or personal conflict of interest that justifies removing her or her office from the case. The filing calls the allegations “salacious” and says they “garnered the media attention they were designed to obtain."
Anthony Michael Kreis, a Georgia State University law professor who's been following the case, said this was “as strong a response as she could have made," noting that the filing acknowledged the relationship, explained the timing and addressed the financial issues.
“I’m just left with the question of why did they not respond sooner,” he said. “As a legal matter, I think it’s done. As a political matter, it still seems a little messy.”
Trump and other critics of Willis have capitalized on allegations about the relationship between Willis and Wade, using them to try to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the case. The former president has also accused Willis — and the prosecutors in three other criminal cases against him — of engaging in political attacks as he appears poised to become the 2024 Republican nominee for president.
Willis, an elected Democrat, is up for reelection this year. The personal relationship with Wade does seem to contradict a statement she said while running to become district attorney in 2020. During an appearance on public access television, she said, “I certainly will not be choosing people to date that work under me, let me just say that.”
Roman’s motion questions Wade’s qualifications to be involved in a complex prosecution under Georgia’s anti-racketeering law.
The response from the district attorney fiercely defended Wade’s qualifications to lead the prosecution team, saying he “has long distinguished himself as an exceptionally talented litigator with significant trial experience.”
Exhibits attached to the filing include pictures of awards Wade has received over the years for his legal work. Willis also attached Facebook posts from Merchant in 2016 supporting Wade’s campaign to become a Cobb County Superior Court judge. In one post, Merchant described Wade as “ethical” and said he has “demonstrated his ability to be fair and impartial.”
During an address at a historic Black church in Atlanta about a week after Roman's motion was filed, Willis suggested that questioning of Wade's qualifications and her decision to hire him was rooted in racism.
In joining Roman's motion, Trump attorney Steve Sadow had accused her of inappropriately injecting racism into the case. Willis' filing in response says her public comments were “well within all legal and ethical rules and guidelines.”
Sadow rejected that, saying, “Apparently, the DA believes she can make public out-of-court statements about race, this case, and the defendants whenever she wants, and the Court is powerless to punish her by disqualification.”
Associated Press writers Eric Tucker in Washington and Alanna Durkin Richer in Boston contributed.