Sunday, February 18, 2024

Fani Willis hearing not a good look for DA's office or special county prosecutor

At some point in the coming weeks or months, the Georgia criminal case against former President Donald J. Trump and his allies will presumably focus once again on the defendants and whether they conspired to overturn Mr. Trump’s election loss there in 2020, reported The New York Times.

But the extraordinary detour that the case has taken, plunging into the intimate details of a romantic relationship between the two lead prosecutors and forcing them to fight accusations of impropriety, may have changed it fundamentally. Now it is unclear whether the case will even remain with Fani T. Willis, the district attorney of Fulton County, since lawyers for Mr. Trump and other defendants are seeking to have her entire office disqualified.

Even if the presiding judge allows Ms. Willis to keep the case, she is likely to face tough scrutiny from now on, including from a new state commission that will be able to remove prosecutors and from the Georgia Senate, which has opened an investigation.

The controversy has also provided fresh fodder for Mr. Trump and his allies, who are adept at exploiting their opponents’ vulnerabilities. Mr. Trump was already making inflammatory attacks on Ms. Willis even before her relationship with Nathan J. Wade, the lawyer she hired to help run the election interference case, came to light.

If nothing else, Ms. Willis’s decision not to disclose her relationship with Mr. Wade from its outset has created a messy diversion from an extremely high-stakes prosecution. Even if the revelations do not taint a jury pool in Fulton County, where Democrats far outnumber Republicans and Ms. Willis has many admirers, her world-famous case could face a lasting perception problem. And if the case gets taken from her, more serious problems may follow.

Judge Scott McAfee of Fulton County Superior Court suggested on Friday that he is likely to not rule next week on whether the relationship created a disqualifying conflict of interest. But already, state officials are considering what might happen if Ms. Willis, who has given no indication that she will step aside voluntarily, has to hand off the case to another district attorney in the state.

“You have to find an office that has the resources to handle this type of case, and there are less than a handful,” Pete Skandalakis, the executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, said in an interview. “You can’t go to a rural D.A.’s office that only has seven or eight prosecutors and say, ‘Can you take on this case?’”

The Trump case is an expansive racketeering prosecution involving 15 defendants and a hive of assistant district attorneys who have been steeped in it for several years. One of the nation’s top racketeering experts works on Ms. Willis’s team and helped draw up the case.

Ms. Willis herself has years of experience in prosecuting racketeering cases, and has so far extracted guilty pleas from four of the initial 19 defendants. Before the conflict-of-interest allegations emerged, she had hoped to go to trial in August, a prospect that now seems less likely than ever.

Skandalakis would be in charge of reassigning the case, if it comes to that. Among the considerations, he said, would be “how far” from Fulton County a new prosecutor would be. That probably means that the case would fall to a district attorney’s office in the Atlanta region. A new prosecutor could essentially do as he or she pleased with the case, and could even decide to drop all the charges.

Flynn D. Broady Jr., the district attorney of Cobb County, next to Atlanta, and a Democrat like Ms. Willis, said that if he were asked to take over the Trump case, “I would review the case file, to make an informed decision” about moving forward with the prosecution.

Underscoring the risks for Ms. Willis, Judge McAfee has said that even the appearance of a conflict could lead to disqualification. The fact he allowed an evidentiary hearing on the allegations against her revealed that he viewed the matter seriously.

The crux of the defense team’s argument is that the romantic relationship between Ms. Willis and Mr. Wade presented an untenable conflict of interest, because it gave the two prosecutors a financial incentive to draw out the case. Ms. Willis’s office has paid Mr. Wade more than $650,000 since his hiring in November 2021.

Both Ms. Willis and Mr. Wade have denied that she benefited financially from his hiring. They have said that their relationship started in early 2022, after she hired him, and that it ended last summer. But in court this week, a former friend of Ms. Willis testified that the relationship had started much earlier. (The witness, Robin Bryant-Yeartie, had worked in Ms. Willis’s office, but they stopped speaking after Ms. Bryant-Yeartie resigned in 2022 to avoid being fired.) 

If nothing else, the hearing created a spectacle, not least when Ms. Willis took the witness stand for several hours on Thursday.

There were furious volleys among lawyers, spiced with accusations of lies and perjury, and details about the onetime couple’s travels to vacation destinations like Belize, where they may or may not have visited a tattoo parlor. There was Ms. Willis’s tart assessment of their breakup. Her office even called her 79-year-old father to the stand to corroborate his daughter’s assertions that she reimbursed Mr. Wade with thousands of dollars in cash for their trips; he said storing up large amounts of cash was “a Black thing.”

Ms. Willis did try at one point during the melodramatic hearing to remind those tuning in of her case against Mr. Trump, which at times has seemed a distant memory since the conflict-of-interest allegations came about. “These people are on trial for trying to steal an election in 2020!” she exclaimed at one point. “I’m not on trial. No matter how hard you try to put me on trial.”

There is already precedent within the Trump case for disqualification. In July 2022, a judge blocked Ms. Willis from developing a case against Burt Jones, a fake Trump elector in Georgia 2020, because Ms. Willis had hosted a fund-raiser for one of Mr. Jones’s political rivals.

A year and a half later, no replacement prosecutor has yet been named to look into a potential case against Mr. Jones, now Georgia’s lieutenant governor.

But Mr. Skandalakis noted that unlike back then, indictments have been handed up. “That makes it different,” he said.

A weakened or deposed Fani Willis is a win for Mr. Trump. Half a dozen swing states are now conducting criminal investigations of the 2020 plot to keep the former president in power, but Ms. Willis remains the only one of those prosecutors who has brought charges against Mr. Trump himself.

Sherry Boston, the district attorney of DeKalb County, in suburban Atlanta, declined to comment on whether she would consider taking the case should Ms. Willis be disqualified. Patsy Austin-Gatson, the district attorney of Gwinnett County, also outside Atlanta, said in an email, “We of course do not have a predisposition about whether our office would consider accepting the case.”

Richard Painter, a law professor at the University of Minnesota and a former White House ethics lawyer, said he did not think the evidence so far met Georgia’s legal standard for disqualifying Ms. Willis.

Still, he said he thought it would be “best for the case that Willis voluntarily resign and that Wade also not continue to work on the case.”

Finding another prosecutor willing to take over her case will not be easy, particularly given the menacing threats that led Ms. Willis to abandon her house and require constant security.

Testifying at the hearing this week, Roy Barnes, a former governor of Georgia, recounted what he told Ms. Willis when she asked him, early on, to help lead the Trump prosecution.

“I’d lived with bodyguards for four years, and I didn’t like it,” he said. “I wasn’t going to live with bodyguards for the rest of my life.”

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