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National News

Georgia 2020 election interference case sidetracked by courtroom drama over DA’s romance

(Credit: Alyssa Pointer-Pool/Getty Images)

Stanley Dunlap, Georgia Recorder
February 18, 2024

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee is expected to decide in the coming days whether District Attorney Fani Willis can continue prosecuting the case against former President Donald Trump that charges him with leading a conspiracy to overturn Georgia’s 2020 election.

McAfee’s decision will come after lawyers for Trump and his 14 co-defendants make closing arguments following two days of contentious court hearings last week over a motion to remove the Fulton D.A. following accusations of prosecutorial misconduct by enriching herself during a romantic relationship with the special prosecutor she hired for the case in November 2021.

Willis has strongly denied allegations that she or Wade misappropriated taxpayer funds for personal gain because of their relationship outside of the workplace. The motion to disqualify her is centered on that issue, as opposed to the recently disclosed nature of the romantic relationship between Willis and Wade.

Over the course of Thursday and Friday, state and defense witnesses ranged from Willis and Wade to Willis’ father, former Gov. Roy Barnes, the D.A.’s former friend and ex-employee and Wade’s former law partner and divorce attorney.

McAfee is expected to make a final decision on whether to proceed with the case under the supervision of Willis’ office after the closing arguments in the hearing take place in about a week.

If the judge removes Willis and the rest of the Fulton D.A. staff from the case, then it would leave it up to the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia to find another district attorney ready to take on the case for it to continue.

The outcome of the landmark case could factor into Willis’ campaigning this year for a second term as district attorney that will place her under a much brighter spotlight than when she won against Paul Howard in 2020.

According to Charles Bullock, a professor of political science at the University of Georgia, Willis’ re-election bid would be affected the most by the election interference case if she faces stiff opposition in the Democratic primary.

If McAfee rules that Willis showed bad judgment by dating Wade, but did nothing worth disqualifying her, then the case likely moves forward with scheduling the trial and finding out if more co-defendants enter pleas, Bullock said.

Willis has been pushing for a late summer trial start for Trump and as many as 14 co-defendants facing felony and racketeering and conspiracy charges.

“She’s obviously a politically savvy person, so she recognizes the biggest impact would be a (Trump) conviction before the election,” he said.

Bullock said that although a number of cases have captivated the nation’s attention over the years, this is the first time the focus has shifted so far away from whether the prosecutor has sufficient evidence to convict the defendants.

Bullock said if the judge removes Willis from the case then she may rally voters by saying she was trying to protect the integrity of Georgia’s elections before the judge took her off the case.

“Because Fulton County is so heavily Democratic, she might well be able to portray herself as a martyr,” he said. “But if the case moves forward and she does draw opposition for D.A., it’s going to take some of her attention away from the case.”

Star witness takes stand on Day 2

Lawyers representing Trump and his co-defendants questioned on Friday a reluctant “star witness” about details they argued would have proved Wade and Willis had lied about when they first became romantically involved.

During two hours of questioning, defense lawyers sought to have Terrance Bradley, Nathan Wade’s former law partner and ex-divorce attorney, contradict testimony from Wade and Willis, who claimed they did not start dating until several months after Wade was hired as special prosecutor in November 2021.

Bradley reluctantly admitted Thursday that for several months he exchanged text messages and email with Ashleigh Merchant, the attorney for co-defendant Michael Roman who publicly disclosed accusations about Willis and Wade in January.

Bradley testified that he sent Merchant a text saying “looks good” after reviewing her motion to dismiss documents prior to them being filed with the court last month. He also testified that he did not have personal knowledge about the romantic  relationship that would fall outside of attorney-client privilege.

By the time Bradley left the witness stand on Friday, his credibility was damaged after he reluctantly disclosed under cross examination to state prosecutors that his law partnership split with Wade was the result of an employee accusing Bradley of sexual assault.

Earlier that day, Bradley claimed the details of the law firms’ split were protected by attorney-client privilege since it involved a disagreement he had with Wade about Wade’s divorce case.

Fulton special prosecutor Anna Cross said that Bradley’s initial denial that workplace sexual misconduct accusations were the reason the partnership ended raises doubt about how much more of his testimony about Wade is untruthful.

McAfee said he would meet with Bradley and his attorney in private to learn more about the extent of Bradley’s  attorney-client privilege claim.

“Mr. Bradley previously testified that the reason he left the firm was totally, completely covered by privilege,” McAfee said. “When asked by the state, he went into a factual scenario that, to my mind, I don’t see how it relates to privilege at all. And so now I’m left wondering if Mr. Bradley has been properly interpreting privilege this entire time.”

Trump attorney Steve Sadow said that if during the taped interview with McAfee, Bradley provides information contradicting Wade, then those details could remain under seal if the judge determines it is confidential.

“None of us are going to know that in fact occurred and the court is going to be in a position of making a determination on the motion even though the court knows that it doesn’t have all the truthful information,” Sadow said.

DA’s father explains cash theory

John Floyd, Willis’s father and a retired attorney, testified that his lifelong money advice to his daughter is the reason she had enough cash to repay Wade for her share of travel expenses.

Floyd said that his philosophy is to keep several months’ worth of living expenses within a house safe and always have some cash with him in public stemmed from an experience decades ago when a diner refused to accept his credit cards because he was Black. According to Floyd, Black people generally know the importance of keeping some cash on hand at home and in public places.

Willis and Wade were grilled by defense attorneys during the hearing about their claims that the district attorney regularly repaid Wade with large sums of cash.

“I’m not trying to be racist, but it’s a Black thing,” Floyd said.

Floyd, who moved into his daughter’s home in 2019 and lived with her until early 2021, testified that Willis was dating someone other than Wade throughout 2019.

 Fulton County special prosecutor Nathan Wade testified at Feb. 15 court hearing that his romantic relationship with Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis did not improperly influence the decision to prosecute former President Donald Trump and co-defendants for election interference. Photo: Alyssa Pointer-Pool/Getty Images

Floyd said the first time he remembers meeting Wade was in 2023 and that he didn’t know about Willis dating Wade until it was revealed in the Roman defense motion January.

He also testified that he has only seen his daughter about a dozen times since she was forced to leave her south Fulton home due to constant threats related to her job.

Former governor rejects job offer

Former Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes testified Friday that he declined to be named special prosecutor in the election interference case a few weeks before Wade accepted the position.

Barnes, who served as governor from 1999-2003 before returning to his private law practice, said he was not comfortable taking on the time-consuming and pressure-packed probe into the former president and his supporters. Barnes’ testimony allowed the state to show that Wade wasn’t Willis’ first choice as the lead prosecutor.

He said Willis offered him the job during an hour-long meeting in October 2021.

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

Barnes described Wade as very organized, which is essential when handling a case of this magnitude.

“I’ve watched him over the years so I wasn’t surprised that he was acting as a special prosecutor,” Barnes said.

Trump and 18 co-defendants were indicted under Georgia racketeering laws for their alleged roles in challenging the 2020 election that the former president says was rigged for Joe Biden. Four of the people initially charged in August subsequently filed guilty pleas.

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John McCosh for questions: info@georgiarecorder.com. Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.

This article is republished from Georgia Recorder under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.