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Atlanta DA admits to a relationship with Trump case prosecutor but defends her actions

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis speaks in Atlanta on Aug. 14, 2023, after former President Donald Trump and his allies were indicted on state charges. At right is special prosecutor Nathan Wade. A personal relationship between Willis and Wade is at the center of misconduct claims against the DA's office.
Joe Raedle
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Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis speaks in Atlanta on Aug. 14, 2023, after former President Donald Trump and his allies were indicted on state charges. At right is special prosecutor Nathan Wade. A personal relationship between Willis and Wade is at the center of misconduct claims against the DA's office.

Updated February 2, 2024 at 4:27 PM ET

ATLANTA — Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is strongly pushing back against claims she violated federal law and ethical standards by having a personal relationship with a lead prosecutor on the 2020 election interference case against former President Donald Trump and others.

In a court filing Friday, Willis said the relationship with Nathan Wade, who was hired to work the case in 2021, did not begin until 2022 and allegations that the pair financially benefit from prosecuting the case are "meritless."

The filing asks a judge to deny a Trump codefendant's motion last month to dismiss charges.

"To be absolutely clear, the personal relationship between Special Prosecutor Wade and District Attorney Willis has never involved direct or indirect financial benefit to District Attorney Willis," the filing reads. "Defendants have produced no evidence to suggest that there is any circumstance that would constitute a financial incentive on the District Attorney's part to pursue a conviction in this case through the appointment of Special Prosecutor Wade."

According to the Jan. 8 motion, Wade has been paid more than $600,000 since 2021 for his work on the case, which primarily included overseeing a months-long special purpose grand jury process behind closed doors that investigated the failed attempt to overturn Georgia's 2020 presidential results by Trump and his allies.

The allegations of a romantic relationship between Willis and Wade were filed by former Trump campaign official Mike Roman as part of a motion to dismiss charges against him and remove the DA's office from any involvement with the case.

Lawyers for Trump and fellow codefendant Bob Cheeley have since also joined on to the request. Trump, Cheeley and Roman have pleaded not guilty to the charges against them.

Roman's charges include racketeering, and the motion to dismiss them argues that Willis and Wade themselves violated federal racketeering law and financially benefit from prosecuting Trump and his allies because of their relationship.

The motion also argued that Wade failed to file his oath of office before working on the case and that his hiring was never approved by county commissioners, nullifying the felony charges stemming from Roman's involvement in a scheme to send a falsified slate of presidential electors to Congress.

Friday's filing rebuts those claims. A hearing over the matter is scheduled for Feb. 15.

Plane tickets as alleged evidence

The political and optical implications of the allegations — and Willis' lack of response until now — have dominated recent headlines surrounding an already-high-profile case against the former president.

Much of the initial 127-page motion written by Ashleigh Merchant, Roman's attorney, contained innuendo and implications of wrongdoing by Willis and Wade without accompanying evidence, citing "sources" that confirmed a relationship and speculating about why Wade was hired.

Willis defended his qualifications, including in Friday's response several awards and honors Wade received and a purported screenshot of a social media post in which Merchant previously campaigned for Wade in a prior run for office.

Roman's filing also said that Wade's divorce proceedings, then filed under seal, would provide corroborating evidence about the alleged relationship, in addition to financial records that showed Wade and Willis traveled together at different times.

Credit card statements released in the divorce case show two plane tickets, one to Miami and one to San Francisco, that Wade purchased for himself and in Willis' name.

The DA said that "expenses for personal travel were roughly divided equally between us."

Fulton County special prosecutor Nathan Wade speaks during a hearing in the 2020 Georgia election interference case on Dec. 1, 2023.
John David Mercer / Pool/Getty Images
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Pool/Getty Images
Fulton County special prosecutor Nathan Wade speaks during a hearing in the 2020 Georgia election interference case on Dec. 1, 2023.

Wade's divorce docket, unsealed last week, did not show any further evidence of the relationship with the district attorney, but does show a bitter fight over money and financial statements with Jocelyn Wade, his estranged wife, who said in court documents she is unemployed.

Attacks on Willis and the case continue

Even if a judge does not dismiss the charges or remove Willis from the case, the allegations against her have set off the latest attack on Willis and the case.

Steve Sadow, one of Trump's lawyers in Georgia, initially declined to sign on to the motion against Willis, calling the filing "salacious and scandalous in nature" at a recent hearing.

But after Willis used an appearance at a Martin Luther King Jr. church service in January to suggest criticism of Wade came because he was Black, Sadow and co-counsel Jennifer Little joined in on the motion to dismiss and blasted Willis' remarks.

"[T]he DA's self-serving comments came with the added, sought after, benefit of garnering racially based sympathy for her self-inflicted quagmire," they wrote in a motion last week.

Willis replied that Trump's motion "appears designed to generate media attention rather than accomplish some form of legitimate legal practice" and should be dismissed.

On Friday, Sadow wrote in a statement that Willis' new "response asks the Court to turn a blind eye to her alleged personal and financial misconduct."

Trump himself has seized on the allegations as the latest opportunity to bash the case and has called Willis "totally compromised."

It's not the first time the former president or his allies have attacked Willis and sought to discredit the charges and derail the investigation into the failed effort to overturn Georgia's 2020 election results.

House Judiciary Chair Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, has sent several letters to Willis as part of an investigation into alleged "collusion" between Fulton County and the House committee that investigated the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

On Friday, Jordan subpoenaed Willis for documents related to a firing of a staffer after it was alleged that she misused federal grant money. Willis on Friday said those allegations are "false."

Georgia's Republican-led state Senate, home to many lawmakers who aided Trump's election meddling efforts, recently approved a special committee to investigate Willis that has little power to act against her but may seek to subpoena testimony seeking to derail the case.

With reporting by WABE's Sam Gringlas

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Stephen Fowler
Stephen Fowler is a political reporter with NPR's Washington Desk and will be covering the 2024 election based in the South. Before joining NPR, he spent more than seven years at Georgia Public Broadcasting as its political reporter and host of the Battleground: Ballot Box podcast, which covered voting rights and legal fallout from the 2020 presidential election, the evolution of the Republican Party and other changes driving Georgia's growing prominence in American politics. His reporting has appeared everywhere from the Center for Public Integrity and the Columbia Journalism Review to the PBS NewsHour and ProPublica.