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Judge in Trump Georgia case orders hearing on Fani Willis misconduct claims

A state judge overseeing the election-interference case against former president Donald Trump in Georgia has scheduled a hearing for Feb. 15 to hear evidence regarding accusations that Fulton County District Attorney Fani T. Willis (D) and her lead prosecutor engaged in an improper relationship and mishandled public money.

Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee also wrote in his order that Willis must respond to the accusations in writing by Feb. 2. They first came to light last week in a filing from one of Trump’s co-defendants, former campaign aide Mike Roman. The order was obtained by The Washington Post and has since appeared on the case docket.

Willis has declined to directly address the explosive accusations. McAfee’s order appears to be forcing her to do so in televised court proceedings, a development that could at the least be embarrassing for the district attorney and at worst derail the investigation completely.

In his filing, Roman called for Willis and the lead prosecutor, Nathan Wade, to be removed from the case, and also for the charges to be dismissed against Trump and 14 remaining defendants.

A spokesman for Willis on Thursday repeated the only statement the office has issued on the allegations so far — that “we will respond in court.”

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On Sunday, Willis broke her silence on the subject, delivering a fiery speech before the congregation of a historic Black church in Atlanta. She did not deny or directly address the most salacious allegations against her and Wade, though she did describe herself as a “flawed” and “imperfect” public servant and she referenced “the loneliness of this position.”

“God, why would you send this imperfect and very flawed person up to that position?” Willis said during her remarks. “God, you did not tell me my home would be swept multiple times for bombs or that most days and nights that I would spend them in isolation because that was the safest place to be. You forgot to mention, Lord, that I would have to abandon my home. You forgot to mention the loneliness of this position. And you certainly didn’t tell me about the stress.”

Yet Willis pushed back on claims she had done anything improper in hiring Wade to work on the Trump case and suggested race had played a role in the criticism of her, a Black woman and the first female district attorney in Fulton County, and Wade, a Black man.

“I appointed three special counsel, which is my right to do. Paid them all the same hourly rate. They only attack one,” Willis said in remarks before the Big Bethel AME Church.

In a Jan. 8 motion, Roman claimed Wade’s employment was improper and unethical because of an ongoing personal relationship with Willis that predated Wade’s hiring as an outside prosecutor. The filing claimed that Willis had benefited personally from Wade’s income from the case, alleging she had joined him on multiple cruises and other trips unrelated to work that Wade had paid for. Willis’s office has paid Wade’s law firm more than $650,000 over two years.

Wade and Willis, Roman’s filing claimed, were “profiting significantly from this prosecution at the expense of the taxpayers.”

The filing provided no proof to back up those claims.

Ashleigh Merchant, a prominent Cobb County defense attorney who represents Roman, later told The Washington Post that the claims were based on sources that she did not name, as well as records she said had been disclosed as part of Wade’s ongoing divorce proceedings, which have turned contentious.

“We’re going to begin to serve subpoenas for documents and witnesses just in case because we have not heard from the D.A.’s office yet as to whether or not they are going to dispute the allegations raised in our motion,” Merchant said Thursday. “After Miss Willis’s speech on Sunday, it appears they are not disputing the allegations, but instead focusing on other issues. If that is the case, we will shift our focus to those issues, but we will not know until the state actually responds in writing.”

McAfee’s order came as other defense attorneys were waiting impatiently for clues as to what evidence Merchant and Roman possess. Steve Sadow, an Atlanta-based criminal defense lawyer who represents Trump in the Georgia case, asked McAfee in court last week if he and other lawyers could be given some time to decide whether to sign onto Roman’s pleading, given that the evidence was still unknown.

McAfee appears to be trying to expedite that process by ordering the hearing — a hearing that Willis and her team undoubtedly had wanted to avoid. It’s not clear if Willis will argue in her response to limit the topics that can be addressed at the hearing — or if that is a request that McAfee would consider.

Willis tapped Wade to lead the Trump case in the fall of 2021, at a time when he had little experience prosecuting criminal cases. He previously served as a municipal judge in the Atlanta area who mostly dealt with traffic tickets and ran a private practice focused on family law and contract disputes.

Willis’s decision to hire Wade is now facing enormous scrutiny. The accusations, if true, could present a conflict of interest or could amount to fraud. If Willis and Wade are removed from the case, it’s unclear if someone else within her office would be permitted to lead it. When a judge barred Willis’s office from investigating Georgia Lt. Gov. Burt Jones (R) for his role in Trump’s alternate-elector scheme in 2020 because Willis hosted a fundraiser for Jones’ eventual Democratic opponent, it fell to the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia to find a new prosecutor. So far, no one has been assigned the case — perhaps an indication of what could happen to the Trump case in similar circumstances.

The Feb. 15 hearing is slated to occur after a scheduled Jan. 31 hearing in Cobb County Superior Court over a motion to unseal records in Wade’s divorce case. Merchant has said she believes records in that case will substantiate her allegations of wrongdoing by Willis and Wade.

A coalition of media organizations, including The Washington Post, has also filed a motion to unseal the divorce record.

Wade’s estranged wife, Joycelyn Mayfield Wade, subpoenaed records from Fulton County and the Fulton County District Attorney’s office last month, accusing Wade of failing to turn over discovery related to his income from his role as a special prosecutor.

On Jan. 8, hours before Roman filed his motion, Wade’s wife served a subpoena on Willis for a scheduled deposition on Jan. 23. Joycelyn Mayfield Wade’s attorney has declined to comment on why Willis was subpoenaed or what she may be asked. It is also unclear whether Willis or Wade may challenge the subpoena.

A source familiar with the case who declined to be named because the proceedings are sealed said the deadline for an objection is Friday. If Willis is deposed, it would be transcribed and videotaped — records that could be made public if requests to unseal Wade’s divorce case are granted and possibly introduced as evidence in the Feb. 15 hearing in Fulton County.

Trump is the subject of four separate criminal investigations, two of them in federal court, one in New York and one in Atlanta. The Atlanta indictment, unsealed in August, accuses the former president and his co-defendants of criminally conspiring to steal the 2020 presidential election in Georgia.

Trump is sure to continue attacking Willis and Wade over the controversy, as he has done repeatedly since it came to light. He has called all of the prosecutions politically motivated witch hunts.

Bailey reported from Atlanta.

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