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Scandal in Georgia threatens to muddy criminal case against Trump

Fani Willis, the Fulton County district attorney, grabbed headlines last year when she unleashed a sprawling 98-page indictment accusing Trump and 18 others of seeking to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

Now, Willis is back in the spotlight — but this time it is a less welcome one. Michael Roman, a former Trump campaign official and co-defendant in this case, has asked the judge overseeing it to disqualify Willis for what he described as an “improper, clandestine personal relationship” with one of the outside attorneys the DA’s office hired to help prosecute the case, Nathan Wade.

The allegations threaten to disrupt one of the most complex criminal cases against the former president, which could push a possible trial well past the November election date — with Trump most likely to be the Republican nominee.

“Certainly it’s hard to imagine there would not be delay”, which would have “very, very significant consequences”, said Clark Cunningham, law professor at Georgia State University.

The judge overseeing the case in Georgia has set a February 15 hearing on the matter, and Willis has until February 2 to file a written response. Should Roman win, it could result in Willis being disqualified from leading the case — or even a dismissal of the case altogether, a decision that Trump’s co-defendants would seize upon to make similar requests.

For Willis, the controversy has also cast a shadow over one of the most ambitious and complex cases of her career: trying to prove a former president and some of his closest associates engaged in a vast conspiracy to subvert the results of the 2020 presidential election within the state, which was one of the most pivotal to Joe Biden’s victory.

The allegations first surfaced in the motion from Roman, who said Wade — who has been paid more than $650,000 by Willis’s office for his work on the case as of December, according to the filing — had used some of that money to pay for “vacations across the world” for himself and Willis, including in Napa Valley and the Caribbean.

The filing did not provide direct evidence of the claims but instead referenced divorce proceedings for Wade and his estranged wife. This week a court unsealed credit card statements from those proceedings provided by Wade’s spouse that showed he had bought plane tickets in his and Willis’s names to destinations including San Francisco and Miami.

In a speech at a prominent black church in Atlanta earlier this month, Willis did not deny allegations of a relationship with Wade. Instead she defended the appointment of the three outside attorneys to help prosecute the sprawling case, including Wade, referring to them as qualified, good friends who were paid “the same hourly rate”. 

Race was a central theme in Willis’s speech, who said that only a black man had been targeted by critics — an implied reference to Wade, the only black person among the three appointees. “First thing they say: ‘Oh, she going to play the racecard now?’ But . . . isn’t it them who’s playing the racecard when they only question one?” she said. 

Trump’s lawyers claim Willis has “repeatedly and inappropriately injected race into the case and stoked racial animus”, according to a court filing on Thursday in which he sought to join Roman’s bid to disqualify the district attorney. The Fulton County district attorney’s office and Wade did not respond to a request for comment. 

Georgia prosecutors have sought to schedule an August 5 trial for Trump and his remaining co-defendants (four pleaded guilty last year). But a lengthy delay to litigate issues over Willis and Wade could push that back by weeks or months.

That could have consequences for the 2024 election, in which Trump is expected to challenge Biden once again for the White House. Trump is facing four criminal indictments in total, including two federal cases and charges filed by the Manhattan district attorney — all of which have tentative trial dates set before November. But given Fulton County’s embrace of cameras in the courtroom, the case in Georgia may be the only one of Trump’s trials to be televised.

“The possibility for voters to watch on television and basically sit in the jury box and evaluate for themselves whether [Trump] was involved in a criminal conspiracy to subvert the election is unique,” Cunningham said.

Willis could voluntarily take personal leave from the DA’s office, which would give her the chance to pick the prosecutor taking over the case, Cunningham said. Otherwise, state officials would have the power to replace her if she were disqualified by a judge. Any outside appointment could take a while to make and result in delays to the trial or a shift in strategy.

Political pressure is also piling up. House Republicans have demanded information from Wade about his use of DA funds. Georgia’s state senate on Friday passed a bill filed by Republican Greg Dolezal to set up a special senate committee to probe alleged misuse of public funds. 

“We send millions of dollars to the Fulton County District Attorney’s office from the state coffers,” Dolezal told the Financial Times. “We want to ensure that those funds are being used appropriately and to the extent that they’re not, we believe that we need answers for the taxpayers and we may need to adjust how we fund that office.”

While challenges against Willis build, she has given no indication that she will back down.

“We are at a time in history when you can no longer sit back and just let other folks do it,” Willis said in her speech at the Atlanta church.

“You cannot expect black women to be perfect and save the world,” she added. “We need to be allowed to stumble . . . With that kind of support, we will move mountains and do Jesus’s will”.

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