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Fani Willis accused of misconduct by Trump co-defendant in Georgia case

A lawyer for Mike Roman claims that Willis has had an inappropriate relationship with a leading member of her team, and seeks to disqualify them.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis at a news conference in Atlanta in August. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)
8 min

ATLANTA — A co-defendant in the Georgia election-interference case against former president Donald Trump has accused Fulton County District Attorney Fani T. Willis of conducting an improper relationship with the case’s lead prosecutor and asked a judge to disqualify the entire prosecution team from the case.

Mike Roman, one of Trump’s remaining 14 co-defendants in the criminal case and a former high-ranking campaign aide during the 2020 election, alleged in a motion filed Monday that Willis has engaged in a personal relationship with the special prosecutor she hired to lead the case, who has been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for his work.

The filing asserts that Willis has benefited personally from those payments because of her relationship with Nathan Wade, the special prosecutor, claiming, for example, that she joined him on multiple cruises and other trips that he paid for. That could amount to an act of fraud or an impermissible conflict of interest under Georgia’s rules of professional conduct, the filing states.

The filing did not offer evidence to back up those sensational claims. Ashleigh Merchant, a prominent Cobb County defense attorney who represents Roman, said in a phone interview Tuesday that her claims were based on sources familiar with the dealings between Wade and Willis, whom she did not name, as well as records she said were disclosed as part of Wade’s ongoing divorce proceedings.

Willis, through a spokesman, declined to comment, but a court filing responding to Roman’s claims is expected. Wade did not respond to a request for comment.

Separately, court records in Wade’s divorce case indicate that Willis was issued a subpoena Monday by Wade’s estranged wife to testify in the proceedings, which appear to have turned contentious. According to an affidavit of service, which was shared with The Washington Post, the subpoena was left with Willis’s executive assistant hours before Roman’s filing appeared on the docket. It is unknown what Willis will be asked or why she was deemed a potential witness.

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The accusation prompted an uproar of speculation and opinion among Trump’s co-defendants and their lawyers, as well as allies of the prosecutors. Critics were quick to note the lack of hard evidence in the filing, and the reality that race and sex — Willis is a Black woman — have prompted ugly accusations against her before.

As of late Tuesday, none of the other defendants had joined Roman’s motion, an unusual development in a case where attorneys for the co-defendants have often been quick to sign on to other filings.

Trump himself weighed in after arguments in federal appeals court in Washington on whether the U.S. Constitution makes former presidents immune from criminal prosecution.

“It turns out that that case is totally compromised,” Trump told reporters. “In fact, they say she’s in far more criminal liability than any of the people she’s looking at.” He also described Wade as “a lawyer with absolutely no experience … who happens to be her lover or her boyfriend.”

The Georgia GOP chairman, Josh McCoon, on the social media site X, called for a halt to the case until the allegations are investigated.

Cobb County court records show that Wade, a private attorney who previously served as a municipal judge, filed for divorce from his wife, Joycelyn Mayfield Wade, in November 2021 — though the docket shows many filings were placed under seal by a judge in February 2022, weeks after word of his hiring as a special prosecutor in the Georgia election case became public.

Merchant said she had been able to access and copy some records in Wade’s divorce case that she claimed include evidence that Wade and Willis had an ongoing personal relationship that predated his hiring.

“I had everything before it was sealed,” Merchant said, adding that she believed the records had been sealed “illegally” because there was no public hearing on the issue as required by Georgia law.

“So there’s some question about whether or not I can publish that stuff because now it’s under seal. So out of an abundance of caution I referenced it … and I filed a motion to unseal it at the same time,” Merchant said. “I just did not feel comfortable putting it out there. I just want to be above board, not put up the actual documents until they’re not sealed.”

Merchant said she expected a Cobb County judge to schedule a hearing on the question of unsealing the file as soon as this week.

Jeff DiSantis, a spokesman for Willis, said the district attorney’s office would respond “appropriately in court filings” and declined to comment further. An attorney for Joycelyn Wade did not respond to a request for comment.

Should Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee grant a motion disqualifying Willis and her office, the decision on who takes on the case would be made by the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, according to Pete Skandalakis, the head of the agency. But it would likely not be a quick decision.

Skandalakis is already familiar with the election case. When a Fulton County judge in 2022 disqualified Willis from investigating Burt Jones, a Trump elector in 2020 who is currently serving as Georgia’s lieutenant governor, Skandalakis was tapped to appoint an outside prosecutor to determine if Jones should face charges. Skandalakis said Tuesday he is still determining who that could be.

Roman’s filing claims Willis improperly appointed Wade as a special prosecutor on the case and that the subsequent indictment is tainted by their alleged ongoing relationship, which the filing described as a breach of professional ethics. The filing alleged Wade used money he earned from Willis’s office to fund trips with her — something Merchant said could be viewed as an illegal kickback to an employer or even a violation of Georgia’s anti-racketeering statute.

Merchant wrote in her filing that in addition to the divorce records, “information obtained outside of court filings indicates that the district attorney and special prosecutor have traveled personally together to such places as Napa Valley, Florida and the Caribbean, and the special prosecutor has purchased tickets for both of them to travel on both the Norwegian and Royal Carribean (sic) cruise lines,” the filing reads. “Traveling together to such places as Washington, D.C. or New York City might make sense for work purposes in light of other pending litigation, but what work purpose could only be served by travel to this traditional vacation destinations?”

Merchant said some of the trips cited in Roman’s filing were “very recent, in the last few months” and said the records she obtained show they shared a room on those trips.

“I’ve got witnesses who could testify that they’re more than personal friends,” she said. “Let’s just say that even if they were just personal friends, which they’re not, she just can’t award a contract without government oversight. She can’t do that. It’s still illegal.”

The filing also questions Wade’s qualifications as a special prosecutor and implies Willis overlooked his lack of experience when she appointed him. Wade is not the only outside attorney hired on contract to work on the Trump case, and it’s unknown how his earnings compare to others. As the lead prosecutor on the Trump case, Wade manages the team, and while he has occasionally argued in court appearances, that task typically falls to others.

The filing alleges Willis did not obtain proper permission from Fulton County commissioners to hire Wade and that he failed to properly file a sworn oath as a special prosecutor — an argument that McAfee previously rejected when other defendants filed a similar motion last year, describing it as a “parrot of a motion” that did not “establish how … Wade’s actions resulted in prejudice.”

Roman’s filing acknowledges McAfee’s previous order but argues that the disqualification request should be viewed in a different light given the additional allegations about Wade and Willis.

In an interview, Merchant said she has known Wade “for many years” and considers him a friend, and she reiterated that she did not make the allegations “lightly.” But she argued that Willis had flouted rules in appointing Wade and that the case was tainted because Wade “didn’t have any business” presenting charges to the grand jury that ultimately indicted Trump, Roman and 17 others last August.

“It’s awkward. It’s disappointing,” Merchant said. “It’s bad. It’s bad enough that it had to be raised.”

Gardner reported from Washington.

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.