Fani Willis case ensnared in legal arguments during testimony about romantic relationship timeline

Feb 15, 2024, 10:20 PM | Updated: Feb 16, 2024, 5:24 pm

ATLANTA (AP) — A man expected to be a key witness for lawyers trying to get Fani Willis disqualified from the Georgia election interference case against Donald Trump instead refused to answer most of their questions on Friday, citing attorney-client privilege during the second day of a hearing that sometimes bordered on theater.

During repeated interrogations by a series of attorneys for Trump and other defendants in the election case, Terrence Bradley declined to discuss a romantic relationship between Willis and Nathan Wade, a special prosecutor she hired for the case.

The lawyers contend the relationship started before Willis, the district attorney for Georgia’s Fulton County, hired Wade and that she improperly benefited from his earnings, creating a conflict of interest that should disqualify Willis’ office from the case. Robin Yeartie, Willis’ former friend and co-worker, testified Thursday that she saw the two hugging and kissing before Wade was hired in November 2021.

Meanwhile, attorneys for the state who are trying to discredit the misconduct allegations against Willis called two key witnesses of their own Friday: Willis’ father, who said he didn’t know about his daughter’s relationship until recently; and former Gov. Roy Barnes, who testified that Willis asked him to serve as special prosecutor, testimony the attorneys used to back her claim that Wade was not her first choice for the job.

Other testimony in the hearing — about cash stashes in homes and romantic dalliances to exotic locales — has lent a soap opera feel to the election case against Trump, one of the most politically consequential prosecutions ever initiated by a district attorney. Thousands watched a livestream of the proceedings, even during tedious lawyerly exchanges about legal theory, while some prominent local figures — including Atlanta’s mayor — dropped in to witness the hearing in person.

It was far from clear by the end of the day Friday that defense lawyers had succeeded in presenting indisputably persuasive evidence to push Willis or Wade off the case against Trump. But even if the allegations don’t derail the case, they threaten to taint the public’s perception of one of four criminal proceedings facing the former president and have provided an opening for Trump and his Republican allies to try to cast doubt on the case’s legitimacy as he vies to reclaim the White House in November.

Trump immediately jumped on the allegations in hopes of discrediting the entire case, part of a yearslong pattern of deflecting attention away from his own conduct by highlighting the personal lives and lapses in judgment — both perceived and real — of the officials investigating him. His use of the word “lover” to refer to Wade echoed his attacks years earlier on two FBI officials who had an extramarital relationship and exchanged derogatory text messages about him during the FBI’s investigation into Russian election interference.

On the witness stand Thursday, Willis forcefully pushed back against any suggestion that her relationship with Wade created a conflict of interest and accused a defense attorney of trying to smear her with salacious lies in an effort to discredit the case against Trump. Her team opted not to bring her back on Friday, avoiding the spectacle of more deeply personal testimony from the district attorney.

The relationship between Willis and Wade was first revealed by Ashleigh Merchant, an attorney for Trump co-defendant Michael Roman, a former campaign staffer and onetime White House aide. Merchant has alleged that Willis personally profited from the case, paying Wade large sums for his work and then benefiting when Wade used his earnings to pay for vacations the pair took.

Bradley, Wade’s former business partner who also served as his divorce attorney for a while, repeatedly refused on Friday to answer questions about Wade and Willis, citing attorney-client privilege. But he did acknowledge communicating with Merchant between September and January as she was investigating the possibility of the relationship.

Wade testified Thursday that he and Willis took trips together, but said Willis paid him back in cash for some expenses that he had charged to his credit card. Attorneys for Trump and some of his co-defendants have sought to cast doubt on the claim that Willis paid Wade in cash, pressing both of them on why Willis would use cash and if they had any evidence that she reimbursed him.

Floyd, Willis’ father, seemed to support his daughter’s assertion that she keeps large amounts of cash at home with his testimony that he always told his daughter to have six months of cash on hand.

“It’s a Black thing,” Floyd said. “Most Black folks, they hide cash, they keep cash.”

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee said he won’t rule on whether Willis and her office should be disqualified from the case until after attorneys for both sides have a chance to present arguments, which he said would likely happen next Friday or the following week. He said during a hearing Monday that Willis could be disqualified “if evidence is produced demonstrating an actual conflict or the appearance of one.”

Willis’ removal would be a stunning development in the most sprawling of the criminal cases against Trump. If she were disqualified, a council that supports prosecuting attorneys in Georgia would need to find a new attorney to take over. That successor could either proceed with the charges against Trump and 14 others or drop the case altogether. Even if a new lawyer went forward with the case, it would very likely not go to trial before November, when Trump is expected to be the Republican nominee for president.

____ Richer reported from Boston and Tucker reported from Washington.

United States News

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Fani Willis case ensnared in legal arguments during testimony about romantic relationship timeline