Fani T. Willis, the district attorney prosecuting the Georgia election interference case against former President Donald J. Trump, acknowledged on Friday a “personal relationship” with a prosecutor she hired to manage the case but argued that it was not a reason to disqualify her or her office from it.
The admission came almost a month after allegations of an “improper, clandestine personal relationship” between the two surfaced in a motion from one of Mr. Trump’s co-defendants. The motion seeks to disqualify both prosecutors and Ms. Willis’s entire office from handling the case — an effort that, if successful, would likely sow chaos for an unprecedented racketeering prosecution of a former president.
“While the allegations raised in the various motions are salacious and garnered the media attention they were designed to obtain, none provide this Court with any basis upon which to order the relief they seek,” Ms. Willis’s filing said, adding that her relationship with the prosecutor, Nathan J. Wade, “has never involved direct or indirect financial benefit” to Ms. Willis.
The filing included an affidavit from Mr. Wade asserting that the relationship started only after Mr. Wade had been hired.
The original motion containing the accusations, filed by Michael Roman, a former Trump campaign official, alleged that Ms. Willis had hired her “boyfriend” as a special prosecutor, granting him lucrative contracts even though he was underqualified, and then benefited by going on vacations that Mr. Wade paid for.
But Ms. Willis said in her filing that “financial responsibility for personal travel taken is divided roughly evenly.” Mr. Wade echoed that language in his affidavit, adding that Ms. Willis “received no funds or personal financial gain from my position as Special Prosecutor.”
Mr. Roman’s motion also alleged that the relationship began before Mr. Wade started working for the Fulton County district attorney’s office in November 2021. But Mr. Wade, in his affidavit, stated that while he had been friends with Ms. Willis since 2019, it was only in 2022 that he “developed a personal relationship” with her.
The allegations, and Ms. Willis’s silence about them until now, have thrown the high-stakes prosecution off balance, giving Mr. Trump a new line of attack and raising the prospect of delays or more serious impacts on the case. Ms. Willis has sought to have the trial start in August, but no date has been set.
The allegations do not change the underlying facts of the case, which accuse Mr. Trump and his allies of engaging in a plot to subvert Georgia’s 2020 presidential election results. Four of the 19 original defendants have pleaded guilty, including some of Mr. Trump’s most zealous defenders. One of them, Jenna Ellis, said tearfully during a hearing late last year that she looked back on what she did “with deep remorse.”
Mr. Roman’s motion last month provided no evidence of a romantic relationship. But several weeks after it was filed, Mr. Wade’s estranged wife produced credit card statements showing that he bought plane tickets for himself and Ms. Willis after he began working for her office. The records show flights to San Francisco from Atlanta purchased on April 25, 2023, and to Miami from Atlanta purchased on Oct. 4, 2022.
But Ms. Willis also purchased plane tickets for herself and Mr. Wade, according to the filing on Friday, which included copies of her email traffic with Delta showing travel arrangements to and from Miami. Melissa D. Redmon, a law professor at the University of Georgia and a former Fulton County prosecutor, said that some of the assertions in the filings could make it difficult for Mr. Roman’s motion to succeed.
“If they are splitting costs,” Professor Redmon said, referring to personal travel expenses for Ms. Willis and Mr. Wade, “it would be difficult to say she personally benefited.”
She added, “That’s the crux of the defendants’ strongest argument — that she should be disqualified because of her personal gain from the relationship.”
In a 2022 interview with The New York Times, Ms. Willis said Mr. Wade had not been her first choice for the job. But she described him as a longtime mentor and friend whom she hired because she could trust him.
Mr. Roman’s motion states that the relationship amounts to a conflict of interest that should be grounds for disqualification, and calls for the case against Mr. Roman to be dismissed. Mr. Trump joined the motion last week; he also argued in a separate filing that Ms. Willis violated state bar rules when she claimed in a speech last month that racism was behind the effort to disqualify her and Mr. Wade. Both prosecutors are Black, while most of the defendants are white.
Ms. Willis scoffed at the conflict of interest claim, writing that the idea of her having a financial stake in the case was based on “fantastical theories and rank speculation. Georgia law requires far more.”
“The existence of a relationship between members of a prosecution team, in and of itself, is simply not a status that entitles a criminal defendant any remedy,” she added.
These matters will be considered by the presiding judge in the case, Scott McAfee of Fulton County Superior Court. He has set a hearing for Feb. 15. Mr. Roman’s lawyer, Ashleigh Merchant, has sent subpoenas demanding that Mr. Wade, Ms. Willis and a number of other witnesses testify at the hearing, though it is unclear whether the judge will allow her to put them on the stand.
In response to Ms. Willis’s filing on Friday, Ms. Merchant argued that the hearing was still necessary. She said in her own filing that witnesses had “personal knowledge that Wade and Willis’s personal relationship began before his appointment as a special prosecutor,” and she said that she wanted to question him in court about the issue.
Within the election interference investigation, there is already precedent for disqualifying the district attorney’s office. In July 2022, a judge disqualified Ms. Willis and her office from developing a criminal case against Burt Jones, now Georgia’s lieutenant governor, because Ms. Willis had headlined a fund-raiser for one of his political opponents.
But in her filing on Friday, Ms. Willis wrote that the scheduled hearing was unnecessary, and would be the equivalent of “a ticket to the circus.” The “supposition and innuendo” about her personal life, she wrote, were “distasteful.”
Mr. Wade has earned more than $650,000 for his work for the D.A.’s office, prompting Mr. Roman, in his filing, to repeatedly refer to “lucrative” contracts. But Ms. Willis defended Mr. Wade’s pay. His $250 per hour rate, she said, was not “out of the norm for prosecuting agencies in Georgia.”
And though Mr. Wade has earned more than other special prosecutors on the case, she noted, the others had “much more circumscribed roles.”
“Special Prosecutor Wade made much more money than the other special prosecutors only because Wade did much more work,” Ms. Willis wrote.
But if nothing else, the optics have not been good for Ms. Willis’s team. During her campaign for district attorney in 2020, Ms. Willis ran against an incumbent facing allegations of sexual harassment. During one campaign appearance, Ms. Willis said: “I certainly will not be choosing people to date that work under me, let me just say that.” (Her opponent, Paul Howard, was found not guilty of harassment allegations in December.)
In a fresh broadside against Ms. Willis, the House Judiciary Committee, led by Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, a staunch Trump ally, subpoenaed her office on Friday over its use of federal funds.
Mr. Trump himself has seized on the allegations. In a social media post on Friday, he said that Ms. Willis “was able to get her ‘lover’” a significant amount of money by hiring him for the case, based on the fact that the target was Mr. Trump. “That means that this scam is totally discredited & over!” he added.
In Georgia, where Republicans hold a firm grip on state government, several investigations are on deck, and will probably explore whether ethical and criminal violations were committed. The biggest risk for Ms. Willis, and the case itself, could from a new commission created by Republican state lawmakers to oversee district attorneys. The commission is expected to review her conduct when it is up and running later this year.
But disappointment has also been palpable among some critics of Mr. Trump, who are hoping he will face consequences for his attempts to stay in power after losing the 2020 election. Late last year, the digital publication The Root named Ms. Willis No. 1 on its list of the 100 most influential Black Americans, and feted her at a ceremony at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.
Then, after the allegations emerged last month, The Root published an article criticizing Ms. Willis for poor judgment, even as it said that Black people in high-profile positions were held to harsher standards than their white counterparts. “We all love Willis here at The Root, which is why she got the top spot at last month’s The Root 100 ceremony,” the article stated. “But she absolutely should’ve known better than to put herself in this position.”
In a statement on Friday, Steven H. Sadow, Mr. Trump’s lead lawyer in Georgia, said that Ms. Willis’s response failed to provide “full transparency and necessary financial details” related to the relationship. Mr. Sadow also asserted that the speech Ms. Willis gave in Atlanta on Jan. 14, in which she suggested her critics were “playing the race card,” was “in violation of her ethical responsibilities as a prosecutor.”
Ms. Willis’s filing included examples of some of the racist invective aimed at her since she began investigating Mr. Trump, including unprintable slurs and epithets, sentiments like “slavery forever” and a depiction of Ms. Willis’s face next to a noose.
“One may question whether the intent is to disqualify the prosecutor who has taken on all of the abuse to pursue justice in this case at great personal cost,” she wrote, “only to be substituted with someone less committed to do so.”
First appeared on www.nytimes.com