Judge says prosecutor Fani Willis can stay on Trump case, must ditch deputy

Willis is prosecuting Trump election interference case in Georgia but faced questions about her relationship with a colleague.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis speaks at a news conference with prosecutor Nathan Wade in Atlanta, Georgia [File: Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters]

A judge in Georgia has ruled that Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis can remain on former President Donald Trump’s election interference case, but only if the deputy she had a romantic relationship with resigned his post.

In response to Friday’s ruling, Nathan Wade stepped down from his position as special prosecutor, amid scrutiny about his relationship with Willis.

Questions about their romance had threatened to delay — and possibly derail — one of the four separate criminal cases Trump currently faces in the United States.

“I am offering my resignation in the interest of democracy, in dedication to the American public, and to move this case forward as quickly as possible,” Wade wrote in a letter announcing his departure.

In the ruling decision down hours earlier, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee found that the relationship did not amount to a conflict of interest that should disqualify Willis from the case.

Nevertheless, he said it created “an appearance of impropriety” that would negatively affect the prosecution team. He also called it a “tremendous” lapse in judgement.

He pointed to the fact that Willis’s office would have paid Wade for his work as special prosecutor, as is standard practice. While McAfee flatly dismissed the idea that Wade’s hiring was a “financial scheme” designed to “enrich” Willis, he explained that the public might perceive otherwise.

“As the case moves forward, reasonable members of the public could easily be left to wonder whether the financial exchanges have continued, resulting in some form of benefit to the District Attorney, or even whether the romantic relationship has resumed,” McAfee wrote in his decision.

“Put differently, an outsider could reasonably think that the District Attorney is not exercising her independent professional judgment totally free of any compromising influences. As long as Wade remains on the case, this unnecessary perception will persist.”

McAfee also questioned the truthfulness of Willis’s and Wade’s testimony about the timing of their relationship, but said there was not enough information to form a conclusion. Willis did not immediately respond to the ruling.

Fani Willis
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis looks on during a hearing on the Georgia election interference case in Atlanta, Georgia [File: Alex Slitz/The Associated Press]

Trump’s defence team had sought to remove Willis from the case as a result of her relationship with Wade, but Friday’s decision ended that push.

Still, the romantic imbroglio has consumed the case in recent weeks, delaying other proceedings.

Willis is prosecuting Trump and more than a dozen co-conspirators for their alleged attempts to overturn President Joe Biden’s win in Georgia, a key battleground state in the 2020 presidential election.

The case uses a statute normally associated with organised crime to accuse the former president, his lawyers, aides and local Republican officials of taking part in a “criminal enterprise” to keep Trump in power.

Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee for 2024, has denied wrongdoing and pleaded not guilty.

Relationship did not prejudice prosecutors

Following Friday’s ruling, defence lawyer Steve Sadow gave a statement, saying Trump’s legal team would respect the court’s decision.

However, Sadow reaffirmed his belief that the judge “did not afford appropriate significance to the prosecutorial misconduct of Willis and Wade”.

“We will use all legal options available as we continue to fight to end this case, which should never have been brought in the first place,” Sadow said.

Willis had hired Wade to lead the team investigating whether Trump and his allies had engaged in a racketeering enterprise to reverse the outcome of Georgia’s vote.

Both Willis and Wade insist they did not begin dating until after Wade became special prosecutor. They also maintain the relationship had no bearing on how the defendants in the case were treated.

However, a former colleague of Willis testified that there was evidence the relationship began before Willis and Wade started to work together. Trump’s lawyers ultimately accused the pair of lying to the court.

Willis and Wade said the relationship ended in mid-2023.

Judge McAfee said there was no indication that the due process rights of Trump and the other defendants had been violated or that the relationship prejudiced the prosecutors in any way.

He said the disqualification of a constitutional officer, like a district attorney, is not necessary when a less drastic option is available.

The ruling has come days after McAfee dismissed three of the 13 counts against Trump in the original indictment, arguing the prosecutors failed to provide sufficient details.

One dismissed count stemmed from a phone call Trump made to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in early January 2021.

During the recorded call, Trump urged Raffensperger to “find 11,780 votes” — one more than he lost the state with.

In addition to the Georgia case, Trump faces a separate criminal trial in New York, as well as two federal prosecutions: one related to his handling of classified documents and the other related to his role in seeking to overturn the 2020 election results.

Source: News Agencies