Fani Willis May Continue Leading Trump's Georgia Election Case

A judge awarded a partial victory Friday to the Fulton County district. Lawyer. Fani Willis, ruling that she would not be disqualified from leading the Georgia election interference case against the former president because her romantic relationship with her top prosecutor did not constitute a direct conflict of interest.

But Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee said Willis' relationship with special prosecutor Nathan Wade had created the appearance of a conflict of interest. And he offered an ultimatum: either she or the special prosecutor she was involved with had to withdraw from the case.

Wade's withdrawal from the wide-ranging racketeering trial, which is one of four criminal cases against the former president, he suggested, would allow “the district attorney, the defendants and the public to move forward without their presence or remuneration being distracting and potentially compromise the merits.” of this case.”

“This finding is in no way an indication that the Court tolerates this tremendous error in judgment or the unprofessional manner of the District Attorney's testimony during the evidentiary hearing,” McAfee wrote. “Rather, it is the opinion of the undersigned that Georgia law does not permit a determination of the existence of an actual conflict simply by making bad decisions, even repeatedly, and it is the duty of the trial court to limit itself to the relevant issues and the applicable law.” that they are presented appropriately. .”

Trump and his co-defendants have pushed for Willis to be disqualified, a move that would have derailed the case, likely delaying the start date of a trial that could have a significant bearing on the Nov. 5 presidential election. Willis had requested a trial in August.

But the schedule is still uncertain. McAfee's ruling will almost certainly be appealed.

In making its decision, McAfee had to weigh which legal standard to apply for disqualification: an actual conflict of interest or the appearance of a conflict of interest. He also had to determine the facts of the case: the nature of Willis and Wade's relationship, what types of funds may have been exchanged and when the relationship ended.

Willis, a Democrat, was Fulton County's newly elected district attorney when she opened a “high priority” criminal investigation in February 2021 into Trump's efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss in Georgia to Democrat Joe Biden. After losing Georgia by nearly 12,000 votes, Trump raised unfounded allegations of voter fraud and pressured Republican leaders in the state to help him overturn the result.

In August 2023, a Fulton County grand jury indicted Trump and 18 of his allies in a sprawling 98-page indictment of racketeering and a dozen other felonies. Four of the defendants have since pleaded guilty to some of the charges.

The relationship between Willis and Wade first drew public scrutiny in January when an attorney for Mike Roman, a co-defendant and former Trump campaign aide, filed a motion accusing Willis and Wade of engaging in a “clandestine and inappropriate personal relationship.” . They attempted to block Willis and his office from prosecuting the case, alleging that Willis was dating Wade when he hired him in November 2021 and improperly benefited when she accompanied him on vacations he paid for.

Willis and Wade have acknowledged that they had a relationship. But they testified that it didn't start until early 2022, months after Willis hired Wade, and that it ended last summer. They also stated that they split the travel expenses.

Prosecutors have argued there was no conflict of interest and there is no evidence that the district attorney derived a direct or indirect financial benefit from the relationship.

Last month, the two sides faced off in hearings that played out like a daytime soap opera when defense attorneys questioned Wade about whether Willis paid him his share of the vacation in cash and asked Willis who paid when they went out to dinner.

On the witness stand, Wade described a birthday trip to Belize as a gift from Willis. Willis detailed a Napa Valley wine tour in which he paid cash for a pairing of champagne, chocolate and caviar. He admitted that he didn't like wine much and preferred Gray Goose vodka.

Visibly upset that defense attorneys accused her of lying about the timeline of their relationship, Willis dismissed the defense accusations as “lies” and criticized what she viewed as intrusions into her personal life.

“You're confused. You think I'm on trial,” Willis at one point, responding to Roman's defense attorney, Ashleigh Merchant. “These people are on trial for trying to steal an election in 2020. I'm not on trial no matter how much they try to take me away.” to trial.”

Defense attorneys argue that allowing Willis to preside over the case threatens to undermine public confidence in a sensitive and already charged investigation. Even the appearance of a conflict of interest, they argue, is enough to remove her from the case.

This is disputed by Willis' lawyers. They argued in a court filing that disqualification of a district attorney requires a “high standard of proof” and that the defense had the burden of proving an actual conflict of interest.

Trump's lawyers have continued to push the idea that Willis and Wade are lying about the timeline of the relationship.

The week after prosecutors testified, defense attorneys filed an affidavit detailing cellphone records that they said indicated Willis and Wade exchanged just under 12,000 calls and text messages before Wade joined the investigation. They also presented cellphone location data that they said showed Wade visited the south Atlanta neighborhood where Willis lived at least 35 times in the 11 months before she hired him. Wade had testified that he had been there fewer than 10 times during the same period.

Anthony Michael Kreis, a law professor at Georgia State University, said unrebutted evidence in court showed the relationship ended long before any indictment was considered by the grand jury and ultimately handed down.

“That really undermines the argument that this prosecution is selective or was somehow strategically manipulated to enrich Fani Willis,” Kreis said.

Still, he said, allegations of a conflict of interest — a narrative Trump has seized on in his campaign to retake the White House — threatened to taint the public's perception of the prosecution.

“The defense's goal here was to keep everyone's attention off the merits of the prosecution and focus on Fani Willis' ethics,” Kreis said. “They've been very successful, so one has to wonder if this exercise in itself has damaged the credibility of the district attorney's office enough to create this appearance of impropriety that would be enough to oust her.”

Kreis said he expected the trial to stretch well into 2025. But such a delay, he said, likely would have happened anyway: “Donald Trump can't be in multiple criminal trials at once.”

Judge McAfee handed a partial victory to Trump and his co-defendants on Wednesday when he dismissed six charges, including three against the former president, related to the charge of soliciting violation of oath by a public official. McAfee ruled that the charges “do not provide sufficient detail” about which part of the oath the defendants were allegedly trying to get public officials to violate.

The timeline for Trump's other criminal cases is uncertain.

Trump's federal trial on charges of conspiring to overturn the 2020 election, originally scheduled to begin March 4, stalled last month when the Supreme Court agreed to consider his claim for “total immunity” from prosecution for actions he allegedly they took place while he was in office.

On Thursday, prosecutors requested a 30-day delay in the New York hush money case involving Trump's 2016 payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels. The trial was due to begin on March 25.

Meanwhile, the judge presiding over the Florida classified documents case, which involves files Trump stored at his Mar-a-Lago residence and club, recently delayed the case that was scheduled for May. Prosecutors have called for a July start, but Trump's legal team is pushing to delay it until after the presidential election.

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