Prosecutor can stay on Trump Georgia election case if ex-lover quitson March 15, 2024 at 5:07 pm

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Fani Willis’s affair was a “tremendous lapse in judgement” but was not a conflict of interest, a judge rules.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis.Image source, Pool

The prosecutor in Donald Trump’s election fraud case in Georgia can stay on the trial, if the lawyer she had an affair with quits, a judge has ruled.

Mr Trump and his co-defendants had tried to get Fani Willis disqualified, saying her relationship with Nathan Wade – whom she hired – had compromised the integrity of the case.

The judge disagreed – but said it did create an “appearance of impropriety”.

He said either Ms Willis or Mr Wade should leave the case to resolve that.

In his ruling, Judge McAfee said Ms Willis had committed a “tremendous lapse in judgement” by engaging in an affair with Mr Wade, and also called her testimony last month “unprofessional”.

Mr Trump and the 18 others are being prosecuted in Georgia for conspiracy to overturn the state’s 2020 election results – which they deny.

But they accused Ms Willis – who is leading the prosecution – of misconduct, for having a romantic relationship with Mr Wade, a lawyer she hired on the case.

They alleged there was a financial conflict of interest, saying the couple used the money paid to Mr Wade to fund luxury trips together.

But Ms Willis and Mr Wade denied this – saying there was no financial benefits, for example they split the cost of their holidays together.

Judge Scott McAfee ruled there was not enough evidence there had been a conflict of interest – but he found there had been an “appearance of impropriety”, and there was a “need to make proportional efforts to cure it” before the case can continue.

The Georgia election interference case is one of four criminal cases Mr Trump faces, that both sides of the political aisle are watching closely ahead of November’s presidential election.

But some of the cases have faced delays. His New York case over alleged hush money payments to a porn star was due to begin in March, but it may now be pushed back after prosecutors agreed to a request from Mr Trump’s lawyers to delay it.

In Florida, where Mr Trump is facing charges for his alleged handling of classified documents, both sides also say the trial will need to be postponed – although a judge denied Mr Trump’s motion to dismiss the case outright.

In his 23-page ruling on Friday, Mr McAfee presented Ms Willis with two options: to step down, along with her team, and have the Prosecuting Attorney’s Council take the case over, or have Mr Wade step down and allow “the public to move forward without his presence or remuneration distracting from and potentially compromising the merits of this case”.

“[A]n outsider could reasonably think that the district attorney is not exercising her independent professional judgment totally free of any compromising influences,” Mr McAfee wrote. “As long as Wade remains on the case, this unnecessary perception will persist.”

Mr Trump’s lead lawyer on the Georgia case released a statement on Friday, saying: “While respecting the court’s decision, we believe that the court did not afford appropriate significance to the prosecutorial misconduct of Willis and Wade.

“We will use all legal options available as we continue to fight to end this case, which should never have been brought in the first place.”

Mr Trump and his co-defendants could appeal the judge’s ruling and further delay the proceedings.

‘A win-win’

According to Adrienne Jones, an assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College in Atlanta, delaying the case was exactly what Mr Trump and his co-defendants had hoped for.

“They will ride that out as long as possible,” she said.

Ms Jones characterised the judge’s decision as effectively a win-win for both Ms Willis and Mr Trump. The district attorney has the option to stay on the career-defining case, she said, and Mr Trump might not face trial before he is possibly elected president where he could then have more sway over the proceedings.

However, Ms Jones said the judge’s “gratuitous comments” about Ms Willis’s behaviour could harm the case by undercutting her credibility.

“The judge is commenting on the quality of her professionalism, and that is an erosion of reputation,” Ms Jones said.

To the question of whether this could have an effect on a potential jury, Ms Jones said: “Absolutely. Everybody here is likely to be influenced by the news coverage of the judge’s decision. It’s not like people are ignorant of what’s happening.”

The case has not yet been scheduled for a trial.

Special prosecutor Nathan Wade looks on as he attends a hearing, in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S., February 27, 2024. Terrence Bradley testified as a judge considered an effort by an effort by lawyers for former President Donald Trump to disqualify Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis over her romantic relationship with a top prosecutor who had been Bradley's law partner.

Image source, Reuters

Earlier this year, Fulton County District Attorney Ms Willis – who brought the case – admitted she had a romantic relationship with Mr Wade, but said it had no bearing on the case.

Ms Willis fiercely denied those allegations from the witness stand during a days-long evidentiary hearing before Judge McAfee.

Visibly upset, she held up papers presented to her by the defence and shouted: “It’s a lie!”

Her fiery testimony drew scrutiny from legal experts and also from judge McAfee who, in his decision released on Friday, described her testimony as “unprofessional”.

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The hearing laid bare multiple intimate details about Ms Willis’s private life, including that she kept large sums of cash in her home, some of which she said she used to pay for trips she took with Mr Wade on trips overseas.

She said their romantic relationship began in early 2022, after she hired Mr Wade in 2021. They stopped dating in August 2023, she said, after a “tough conversation”, although they are now “very good friends”.

But testimony from Ms Willis’s former friend Robin Yearte disputed that timeline. Ms Yearte said she believed the two lawyers began dating in 2019, when she saw them hugging and kissing.

The details of the romance came forth after one of Mr Trump’s co-defendants, Michael Roman, filed a motion accusing Ms Willis of engaging in an “improper, clandestine personal relationship” with Mr Wade.

Separately earlier this week, Judge McAfee threw out some of the criminal charges against Mr Trump and the other defendants.

He found six counts in the 41-count indictment lacked detail – although said they could be refiled at a later date.

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