The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Judge in Trump Georgia case orders hearing on Fani Willis misconduct claims

Fulton County District Attorney Fani T. Willis speaks during a worship service Sunday at the Big Bethel AME Church in Atlanta. (Miguel Martinez/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP)
10 min

A state judge overseeing the election interference case against former president Donald Trump in Georgia has scheduled a hearing for Feb. 15 to hear evidence regarding accusations that Fulton County District Attorney Fani T. Willis (D) and her lead prosecutor engaged in an improper relationship and mishandled public money.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee also wrote in his order that Willis must respond to the accusations in writing by Feb. 2. Willis has declined to directly address the explosive accusations that first came to light last week in a filing from one of Trump’s co-defendants, former campaign aide Mike Roman. The filing did not include evidence to substantiate the claims.

McAfee’s order, which was obtained and first reported by The Washington Post, could force Willis to address the allegations in televised court proceedings, a development that could at least be embarrassing for the district attorney and at worst for her derail the investigation completely. The district attorney separately signaled Thursday that she plans to fight the efforts to disqualify her from the case, filing a motion to block a subpoena that could force her to testify in the contentious divorce case of her lead prosecutor, Nathan Wade.

Roman’s filing called for Willis and Wade to be disqualified and for the entire case to be dismissed. Roman, Trump and 13 others are accused of criminally conspiring to overturn Trump’s 2020 election loss in Georgia. Trump is the subject of three other criminal investigations, two of them in federal court and one in New York.

A spokesman for Willis on Thursday repeated the only statement the office has issued on the allegations so far — that “we will respond in court.”

Sign up for The Trump Trials, our weekly newsletter tracking Trump's four criminal cases

On Sunday, Willis broke her silence on the subject, delivering a fiery speech before the congregation of a historic Black church in Atlanta. She did not deny or directly address the most salacious allegations against her and Wade, though she did describe herself as a “flawed” and “imperfect” public servant and referenced “the loneliness of this position.”

“God, why would you send this imperfect and very flawed person up to that position?” Willis said at the Big Bethel AME Church. “God, you did not tell me my home would be swept multiple times for bombs or that most days and nights that I would spend them in isolation because that was the safest place to be. You forgot to mention, Lord, that I would have to abandon my home. You forgot to mention the loneliness of this position. And you certainly didn’t tell me about the stress.”

Yet Willis pushed back on claims she had done anything improper in hiring Wade, a private attorney, to work as a special prosecutor on the Trump case and suggested race had played a role in the criticism of her, a Black woman and the first female district attorney in Fulton County, and Wade, a Black man.

“I appointed three special counsel, which is my right to do. Paid them all the same hourly rate. They only attack one,” Willis said.

Willis’s office has paid Wade’s law firm more than $650,000 over the last two years. The Washington Post has requested, but not yet received, copies of contracts for other outside attorneys on the case as well as copies of their expenses filed with the district attorney’s office. However, Fulton County records show Wade’s law firm has been paid more than law firms associated with the other two attorneys.

In a Jan. 8 motion, Roman claimed Wade’s employment was improper and unethical because of an ongoing personal relationship with Willis that predated Wade’s hiring. The filing claimed that Willis had benefited personally from Wade’s income from the case, alleging she had joined him on multiple cruises and other trips unrelated to work that Wade had paid for.

Wade and Willis, Roman’s filing claimed, were “profiting significantly from this prosecution at the expense of the taxpayers.”

The filing provided no proof to back up those claims.

Ashleigh Merchant, a prominent Cobb County defense attorney who represents Roman, later told The Post that the claims were based on sources that she did not name, as well as records she said had been disclosed as part of Wade’s ongoing divorce proceedings.

“We’re going to begin to serve subpoenas for documents and witnesses just in case because we have not heard from the DA’s office yet as to whether or not they are going to dispute the allegations raised in our motion,” Merchant said Thursday. “After Miss Willis’s speech on Sunday, it appears they are not disputing the allegations, but instead focusing on other issues. If that is the case, we will shift our focus to those issues, but we will not know until the state actually responds in writing.”

McAfee’s order came as other defense attorneys waited impatiently for clues as to what evidence Merchant and Roman possess. Steve Sadow, an Atlanta-based criminal defense lawyer who represents Trump in the Georgia case, asked McAfee in court last week if he and other lawyers could be given some time to decide whether to sign on to Roman’s pleading, given that the evidence was still unknown.

McAfee appears to be trying to expedite that process by ordering the hearing — a hearing that Willis and her team undoubtedly had wanted to avoid. It’s not clear if Willis will argue in her response to limit the topics that can be addressed at the hearing — or if that is a request that McAfee would consider.

Trump is sure to continue attacking Willis and Wade over the controversy, as he has done repeatedly since it came to light. He has called all the prosecutions politically motivated witch hunts.

Willis tapped Wade to lead the Trump case in November 2021, at a time when he had little experience prosecuting criminal cases. He previously served as a municipal judge in the Atlanta area, where he mostly dealt with traffic tickets and other misdemeanors. Wade also runs a private practice focused largely on family law, contract disputes and criminal defense.

Willis’s decision to hire Wade is now facing enormous scrutiny. The accusations, if true, could present a conflict of interest or could amount to fraud. If Willis or Wade recuse themselves from the case, it’s unclear if someone else within the district attorney’s office would be permitted to lead it. If one or both are removed, the entire district attorney’s office probably would be disqualified.

When a judge barred Willis’s office from investigating Georgia Lt. Gov. Burt Jones (R) for his role in Trump’s alternate-elector scheme in 2020 because Willis hosted a fundraiser for Jones’s eventual Democratic opponent, it fell to the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia to find a new prosecutor. So far, no one has been assigned the case — perhaps an indication of what could happen to the Trump case in similar circumstances.

The Feb. 15 hearing is slated to occur after a scheduled Jan. 31 hearing in Cobb County Superior Court over a motion to unseal records in Wade’s divorce case. Merchant has said she believes records in that case will substantiate her allegations of wrongdoing by Willis and Wade.

A coalition of media organizations, including The Post, has also filed a motion to unseal the divorce record.

Wade’s estranged wife, Joycelyn Mayfield Wade, subpoenaed records from Fulton County and the Fulton County district attorney’s office last month, accusing Wade of failing to turn over discovery related to his income from his role as a special prosecutor.

On Jan. 8, hours before Roman filed his motion, Wade’s wife served a subpoena on Willis for a scheduled deposition on Jan. 23. Joycelyn Mayfield Wade’s attorney has declined to comment on why Willis was subpoenaed or what she may be asked.

On Thursday, Willis sought to quash that subpoena, accusing Joycelyn Mayfield Wade of using the divorce case “as a vehicle to harass” her and of colluding with others to disrupt the racketeering case against Trump and his allies. The motion was first reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“The subpoena for the deposition of District Attorney Willis is being sought in an attempt to harass and damage her professional reputation,” Cinque Axam, an attorney representing Willis, wrote in the motion. “On further information and belief, defendant Joycelyn Wade has conspired with interested parties in the criminal election interference case to use the civil discovery process to annoy, embarrass and oppress District Attorney Willis.”

Willis’s motion pointed out the close timing between the subpoena and Roman’s filing as well as Merchant’s motion to unseal the divorce records. It said Fulton County and the Fulton County district attorney’s office had complied with Joycelyn Mayfield Wade’s subpoena for records related to her estranged husband.

Willis also claimed the subpoena was improper because it is “unlimited in scope” and does not specify what information is being sought.

“Willis cannot provide unique personal knowledge of any matter that is relevant to Defendant Wade’s divorce,” Axam wrote. “Because the parties agree that the marriage is irretrievably broken and the concept for fault is not at issue, there is no information that District Attorney Willis could provide that might prove relevant to granting or denying the divorce.”

Andrea Dyer Hastings, an attorney for Joycelyn Mayfield Wade, declined to comment on Willis’s claims, saying in a statement that her client would respond in a court filing. But she criticized Willis for her public response in a case where many filings remain under seal.

“We aim to help Ms. Wade resolve her divorce fairly and privately, but apparently Fulton County D.A. Fani Willis would prefer to use her public platform,” Hastings said in a statement. “Clearly, this matter is personal for her.”

Merchant accused Willis of attempting “to create a conspiracy where none exists.”

“We filed Mr. Roman’s motion on the day it was due, January 8th,” Merchant said. “We believe her filing in Cobb County is just another attempt to avoid having to directly answer the important questions Mr. Roman has raised. She appears to be doing everything she can to avoid having to account for inconvenient and difficult facts.”

If Willis is deposed, it probably would be transcribed and videotaped — records that could be made public if requests to unseal Wade’s divorce case are granted and that could possibly be introduced as evidence in the Feb. 15 hearing in Fulton County.

Bailey reported from Atlanta.

More on the Trump Georgia case

The latest: Four of Trump’s co-defendants have pleaded guilty in the Georgia election case. Trump previously entered a plea of not guilty. The Washington Post published details of recorded statements given to prosecutors by the co-defendants who accepted plea deals in the case, offering previously undisclosed information about the effort by Trump and his allies to reverse his defeat.

The charges: Trump was charged with 13 counts, including violating the state’s racketeering act. Read the full text of the Georgia indictment. Here’s a breakdown of the charges against Trump and a list of everyone else who was charged in the Georgia case. Trump now faces 91 total charges in four criminal cases.

The case: Fulton County District Attorney Fani T. Willis (D) has been investigating whether Trump and his associates broke the law when they sought to overturn Trump’s 2020 election loss in Georgia. Here’s what happens next in the Georgia case.

Historic mug shot: Trump surrendered at the Fulton County Jail on charges that he illegally conspired to overturn his 2020 election loss. Authorities released his booking record — including his height and weight — and mug shot.