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Defense attorney details Fani Willis relationship probe to Georgia Senate committee

A Republican-led Georgia state Senate panel gave the floor Wednesday to a defense attorney who surfaced allegations of a romance between Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis (D) and a special prosecutor in former President Trump’s 2020 election interference case.

Over three and a half hours, defense attorney Ashleigh Merchant described her investigation into Willis’s relationship with special prosecutor Nathan Wade, without the constraints of a courtroom to hold her back.

Merchant’s testimony largely imitated an oral history of the historic criminal prosecution and her efforts looking into Willis and Wade’s romance, revealing few new details but further thrusting the prosecutors’ romance into the spotlight as state senators investigate it over allegations Willis misused taxpayer funds.

Willis and Wade acknowledge the relationship but deny any wrongdoing and have described calls for them to step aside from the prosecution as meritless. The committee’s investigation could ultimately lead to subpoenaing the district attorney herself.

Merchant — who first brought the romance to light in a January court filing — told the state Senate panel Wednesday that her investigation began after running into Wade’s ex-law partner, Terrence Bradley, at court. The lawyers found themselves in a conference room in September, waiting for other matters to proceed, and Bradley “essentially went through the whole thing.”

“I had a notepad, and I took notes on all the things to ask for, for open records … What he said is that they met at a judicial conference before — he was very specific that it was before — she became” district attorney, Merchant said.

Merchant said that Bradley was upset with how Wade had treated his wife, Joycelyn Wade, because the special prosecutor left their marriage after meeting Willis. The couple is currently pursuing a divorce, and Wade previously claimed his wife had a prior affair.

Bradley also told Merchant to find Robin Yeartie — Willis’s ex-“bestie” — who later testified for the defense that Willis and Wade “no doubt” began seeing each other romantically after the 2019 judicial conference, before Wade’s hiring.

Willis and Wade have maintained that they began dating in early 2022 and broke up in summer 2023.

Bradley was billed as a star witness for the defense but walked back some of his splashiest claims on the witness stand.

Wade’s qualifications and how much he bills for his work were also drawn into question throughout the hearing — a topic Judge Scott McAfee precluded defense attorneys from discussing during his hearings last month.

State Sen. Bill Cowsert (R) questioned why Wade was hired as a special prosecutor, when the role is rarely used in other counties.

Merchant said special prosecutors can still take private practice and are not subjected to county salary requirements. Wade has been paid some $700,000 since joining the prosecution, while county salaried employees make less, she said. Wade testified last month that he has made “significantly” less than usual since joining the prosecution.

In addition, because of Wade’s relationship with Willis, the district attorney could not have hired him as a county employee, Merchant said.

“This process circumvented those rules and ethical obligations?” Cowsert asked.

“Yes, it did,” Merchant replied.

But state Sen. Harold Jones (D), minority whip, pushed back against the idea that Willis’s prosecution was crafted to financially benefit herself and Wade, after Merchant noted that her client, 2020 Trump campaign operative Michael Roman, was previously offered a plea deal.

“What you’re just telling me now is that he was willing to stop his billing, because he offered your client a misdemeanor and you rejected it,” Jones said. “You’re the one who’s continuing the billing.”

Cowsert also briefly turned his questioning to records showing that Willis traveled to the White House in February 2023, months before she indicted Trump. The former president has claimed without evidence that his indictment was coordinated with the Biden White House.

“Do you have reason to suspect or can you confirm whether or not Ms. Willis or Mr. Wade were coordinating with the Biden White House in the course of this investigation and prosecution?” Cowsert asked.

Merchant noted that White House visitor logs indicate it was a meeting with Vice President Harris and the Atlanta mayor, but Merchant said she had no further information. The Hill has reached out to Harris’s office for comment.

Wednesday’s hearing was the committee’s second public meeting since the state Senate voted along party lines to form the investigative body earlier this year. The vote was sparked by Merchant bringing the romance to light in January.

“It was the day session began, and all of a sudden, these bombshell allegations come out,” noted Cowsert.

Though the committee cannot disqualify Willis from the case like McAfee — the judge — can, the committee does have subpoena power.

Cowsert has vowed to use available tools to determine whether Willis misused taxpayer funds and whether the Senate should amend state laws in the wake of the salacious controversy. But Cowsert has repeatedly insisted he will not let the investigation interfere with Trump’s criminal prosecution or become a political witch hunt.

The committee could ultimately look to subpoena Willis or other prosecutors.

Meanwhile, McAfee is weighing whether to boot Willis, Wade and the district attorney’s office from the racketeering case. If they are disqualified, the historic prosecution could be thrown into limbo.

Trump and several allies are accused of joining a criminal enterprise bent on returning the former president to the White House after he lost the 2020 election in Georgia. Trump has pleaded not guilty to the 13 counts he faces.

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