Fulton County DA Fani Willis can stay on Trump case only if she removes her ex as a special prosecutor, judge says

ATLANTA (AP) — Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis must step aside from the Georgia election interference case against Donald Trump or remove the special prosecutor with whom she had a romantic relationship before the case can proceed, the judge overseeing it ruled Friday.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee said he did not conclude that Willis’ relationship with special prosecutor Nathan Wade amounted to a conflict of interest. However, he said, it created an “appearance of impropriety” that infected the prosecution team.

“As the case moves forward, reasonable members of the public could easily be left to wonder whether the financial exchanges have continued resulting in some form of benefit to the District Attorney, or even whether the romantic relationship has resumed,” the judge wrote.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis looks on during a hearing on the Georgia election interference case, Friday, March, 1, 2024, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Alex Slitz, Pool, File)

“Put differently, an outsider could reasonably think that the District Attorney is not exercising her independent professional judgment totally free of any compromising influences. As long as Wade remains on the case, this unnecessary perception will persist.”

Willis and Wade testified at a hearing last month that they had engaged in a romantic relationship, but they rejected the idea that Willis improperly benefited from it, as lawyers for Trump and some of his co-defendants alleged.

McAfee wrote that there was insufficient evidence that Willis had a personal stake in the prosecution, but he said his finding “is by no means an indication that the Court condones this tremendous lapse in judgement or the unprofessional manner of the District Attorney’s testimony during the evidentiary hearing.”

The judge said he believes that “Georgia law does not permit the finding of an actual conflict for simply making bad choices — even repeatedly — and it is the trial court’s duty to confine itself to the relevant issues and applicable law properly brought before it.”

An attorney for co-defendant Michael Roman asked McAfee to dismiss the indictment and prevent Willis and Wade and their offices from continuing to prosecute the case. The attorney, Ashleigh Merchant, alleged that Willis paid Wade large sums for his work and then improperly benefited from the prosecution of the case when Wade used his earnings to pay for vacations for the two of them.

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Willis had insisted that the relationship created no financial or personal conflict of interest that justified removing her office from the case. She and Wade both testified that their relationship began in the spring of 2022 and ended in the summer of 2023. They both said that Willis either paid for things herself or used cash to reimburse Wade for travel expenses.

The sprawling indictment charges Trump and more than a dozen other defendants with violating Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, known as RICO. The case uses a statute normally associated with mobsters to accuse the former president, lawyers and other aides of a “criminal enterprise” to keep him in power after he lost the 2020 election to Democrat Joe Biden.

Trump, Republicans’ presumptive presidential nominee for 2024, has denied doing anything wrong and pleaded not guilty.

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Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis has been told by a judge to step aside from the Georgia election interference case against Donald Trump due to her romantic relationship with special prosecutor Nathan Wade. The judge ruled that their relationship created an appearance of impropriety that could compromise the prosecution team’s independence and judgment. While there was insufficient evidence of personal gain for Willis, the judge emphasized the need to avoid any perception of bias or conflict of interest. Willis and Wade testified that their relationship began in 2022 and ended in 2023, with both denying any improper benefits. The case against Trump and other defendants involves charges of violating Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. Trump has denied any wrongdoing and pleaded not guilty. The judge’s ruling highlights the importance of upholding professional standards and avoiding conflicts of interest in high-profile legal cases.

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