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Judge rejects Donald Trump’s bid to disqualify Georgia prosecutor Fani Willis

The former president’s lawyers claimed a conflict of interest due to the Fulton County District Attorney’s romantic relationship with special prosecutor Nathan Wade. The judge disagreed, but did find ‘appearance of impropriety’

Fani Willis
Fulton District Attorney in Georgia, Fani Willis.Alex Slitz (via REUTERS)
Macarena Vidal Liy

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis — under whose watch former president Donald Trump and 18 co-defendants were indicted in August on felony charges in connection with efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election results in Georgia — will be able to keep prosecuting the case, with some conditions. Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee found that the (now ended) romantic relationship between Willis and the special counsel she appointed to the case, Nathan Wade, did not pose an “actual conflict of interest” as the defense had claimed.

However, Judge McAfee did find that the “appearance of impropriety” created by the relationship means that either Willis or Wade should remove themselves from the case. “The District Attorney may choose to step aside, along with the whole of her office, and refer the prosecution to the Prosecuting Attorneys Council for reassignment. Alternatively, SADA Wade can withdraw, allowing the District Attorney, the defendants, and the public to move forward without his presence or remuneration distracting from and potentially compromising the merits of this case.”

Hours later, Wade formally withdrew from the case. Wade offered his resignation in a letter to Willis, saying he was doing so “in the interest of democracy, in dedication to the American public and to move this case forward as quickly as possible.”

In a 23-page ruling following hearings in February, the judge found the defense’s “allegations and evidence legally insufficient to support a finding of an actual conflict of interest.” McAfee said there was no sufficient evidence “that the District Attorney acquired a personal stake in the prosecution, or that her financial arrangements had any impact on the case.”

“However, the established record now highlights a significant appearance of impropriety that infects the current structure of the prosecution team, an appearance that must be removed,” the judge wrote, calling Willis’ decision to get romantically involved with Wade “a tremendous lapse in judgment.”

The decision is a Pyrrhic victory for Willis. The February hearings shed light on numerous aspects of her private life that may linger in the mind of the public as the legal case against Trump and his co-defendants proceeds. The same judge earlier this week dismissed three of 13 counts against Trump in the indictment.

Throughout the two-year investigation, Willis — the first African-American to head the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office — has endured all kinds of harassment, including racist slurs and death threats, to the point that she was temporarily forced to move to a different home.

The case will have consequences. It is possible, on the one hand, that Trump and the other defendants will appeal McAfee’s decision. On the other hand, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp passed a state law this week allowing investigations of local prosecutors suspected of acting for improper reasons. Republican lawmakers in that state have already indicated they plan to open an investigation against Willis, a Democrat. A local congressional committee has already opened its own hearing on the allegations against the two prosecutors.

The scandal erupted in January, when lawyers for Mike Roman, one of the defendants in the election fraud case, denounced the existence of the romantic relationship between Willis and Wade and claimed that it constituted a conflict of interest. The DA, they claimed, benefited financially from hiring in November 2021 her then-boyfriend, who with his salary as special prosecutor — he has collected $650,000 dollars during this time — paid for a series of luxury vacations for both in places like the Bahamas, Aruba or Napa Valley during the investigation against the former president.

Both prosecutors have admitted the relationship but denied there was any financial benefit for Willis, either directly or indirectly. The DA said she paid for her share of the vacation time, but always in cash, claiming that her father taught her to always have a lot of cash handy in case of an emergency.

Throughout the hearing, one of the main points of conflict between the prosecutors and the defense team was when exactly the relationship began. Willis and Wade both testified that it was in 2022, after he was hired in 2021. But Trump’s lawyers did not consider this testimony to be truthful and felt this was enough to have Willis disqualified from the case.

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