ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia's state Senate joined attempts to investigate Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis on Friday, voting 30-19 to create a special committee that Republican senators say is needed to determine whether the Democratic district attorney misspent state tax money in her prosecution of former President Donald Trump and others.
“This has to do with following state funds,” said Republican Sen Matt Brass of Newnan. “We want to know where is our money going.”
The committee, which doesn't require approval by the state House or Gov. Brian Kemp, is tasked with making recommendations on state laws and spending based on its findings. But the committee can't directly sanction Willis, and Democrats denounced it as a partisan attempt to try to play to Trump and his supporters.
“You’re talking about partisan politics. That’s all you’re talking about," said Democratic Sen. David Lucas of Macon.
Trump on Thursday joined an effort by co-defendant Michael Roman to have Willis, special prosecutor Nathan Wade and their offices thrown off the case. Ashleigh Merchant, a lawyer for Roman, filed a motion Jan. 8 accusing Willis of having an inappropriate romantic relationship with Wade that resulted in a conflict of interest.
Willis has yet to respond publicly to the allegations of a romantic relationship between her and Wade. But she vigorously defended Wade and his qualifications in a speech during a service honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at a historic Black church in Atlanta on Jan. 14. She suggested during that address that the questioning of Wade’s hiring was rooted in racism.
A filing in Wade's divorce case includes credit card statements that show Wade — after he had been hired as special prosecutor — bought plane tickets in October 2022 for him and Willis to travel to Miami and bought tickets in April to San Francisco in their names. Republican State Sen. Brandon Beach of Alpharetta said that Willis' employment of Wade is a “prosecution for personal profit scheme,” contending that she has stretched out the Trump inquiry to keep paying Wade and derive personal benefit.
“I believe this scheme — prosecution for personal profit — was a fraud against the court and it was a fraud against you as a Georgia taxpayer,” Beach said.
The new panel would be able to issue subpoenas and require people to testify under oath — powers that no other Georgia legislative committee routinely uses.
People can already be prosecuted for making false statements to Georgia lawmakers. Those are among the criminal charges that Rudy Giuliani and some others face for the false claims they made to Georgia lawmakers in late 2020. They claimed Georgia's election was marred by widespread fraud and that Trump and not Democrat Joe Biden was the rightful winner of the state’s 16 electoral votes.
The action comes at the beginning of Georgia’s 2024 legislative session, with all 56 Senate and 180 House seats up for election later this year. With few of the 56 Senate districts expected to be competitive between Republicans and Democrats, the most serious opposition that many lawmakers could face would be in their party primary in June. Attacks on Willis by Republicans and a defense of her by Democrats could deter primary challenges on both sides in advance of the March deadline for candidates to file for election.
Most of the top supporters are Republican lawmakers who also publicly backed Trump's efforts to overturn Georgia's 2020 election results, including Republican Lt. Gov. Burt Jones. Willis was barred from prosecuting Jones by a judge after she hosted a fundraiser for a Democratic opponent. Jones on Wednesday reaffirmed his support for Trump after the former president won the New Hampshire primary.
“I’ve never shied away from it,” Jones told reporters. “I’m a Trump guy. I’ve been a Trump supporter since 2015.”
Kemp, though, has said he favors a revived prosecutor oversight board looking into whether Willis did anything wrong, instead of a legislative committee.
Democratic Sen. Josh McLaurin accused Republicans of going down a “dangerous path” by catering to Republicans who have shown themselves willing to threaten violence against Georgia lawmakers seen as insufficiently supportive of Trump.
“If you guys think you can handle it — if you think you can inflame that base, and feed them more, feed them misinformation, or let them persist in their misinformation about the results of elections — and not face the consequences someday, I think you're mistaken,” McLaurin said.