Attorney accusing Fani Willis of wrongdoing testifies before Georgia state Senate panel

A Georgia state Senate committee investigating allegations of wrongdoing by the Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis heard more than three hours of testimony from defense attorney Ashleigh Merchant that largely went unchallenged by the mostly Republican committee and offered little to no new information about the claims.

Merchant is representing one of Donald Trump’s co-defendants in the sprawling 2020 Georgia election interference racketeering case and is seeking to have Willis, a Democrat, removed from the case, possibly endangering the entire prosecution.

Republican state Sen. Bill Cowsert, chairman of the committee, told CNN that endgame of the panel is, “to determine whether there has been improper behavior. Whether it’s been financially irregularities, and whether state laws have been broken.”

“That’s the role of this committee, get to the facts, get the truth and see if we need to build in more guardrails in Georgia law to prevent apparent conflicts of interests, abuse of the public trust, misuse of tax funds,” Cowsert said.

However, Democratic Sen. Jason Esteves accused his Republican colleagues of not being in pursuit of the truth about Willis, but rather attempting to keep the story in the news by any means possible.

“They don’t think the legal process is going fast enough,” Esteves said, calling Wednesday’s hearing “silly.”

The district attorney echoed similar criticism, calling the hearing “a political quest by politicians who are upset that I do the right thing and stand up for justice no matter who is the person is who may have done wrong in Fulton County.”

“They can continue on with their games and I will continue to do the work of the people,” Willis said in a statement.

State Sen. Harold Jones was the sole Democrat to question Merchant and told reporters after the hearing he believed Republican lawmakers were trying to bring “negative publicity to the whole situation,” and “possibly try to influence the trial.”

Jones used his time questioning Merchant to raise concerns he had about the validity of her claims, stating that Merchant’s client had no “hard conflict” and that Wade was just billing those hours “because he’s prosecuting the case.”

Among Merchant’s claims of wrongdoing is that Wade was allegedly overpaid for the 2020 Georgia election interference case. Jones argued, “he’s billing hours because he’s prosecuting the case, a case that a grand jury indicted.”

“He’s able to go to a grand jury and get indictments which positive for the state side and he’s actually had some person actually plead guilty.” said Jones, referring to Wade. “Your argument is that a person [Willis] makes $200,000 a year is actually setting up prosecutions to go on a trip that costs $3,500.”

“I think juries are going be smarter than that. They’re going hear the evidence…and I’m sure both sides will actually do their role in that particular situation,” Jones said.

The special investigative committee was formed in January, after the allegations against Willis were first made public in a motion to disqualify her filed by Merchant.

While the committee does have the power to subpoena individuals to have them testify under oath, the nine-member committee does not have the power to remove Willis from the case.

Wednesday was the first time it had heard from a witness, and comes a day after Super Tuesday which all but ensured the pathway for Trump to become the next Republican presidential nominee.

The committee of six Republicans and three Democrats was initiated to investigate whether Willis showed a potential conflict of interest or misused public funds in her relationship with her special prosecutor, who she hired in 2021, before they claim their romantic relationship began.

The panel can amend Georgia law or create new legislation but lacks the power to directly sanction Willis.

CNN’s Zachary Cohen, Jade Gordon, Shirin Faqiri and Olivia Laborde contributed to this report.

This story and headline have been updated with additional developments.

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