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Trump Georgia Prosecutor Willis Remains on Case After Lead Prosecutor Quits

(Bloomberg) -- Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis can continue overseeing the Donald Trump election-interference case in Georgia after Nathan Wade, the lead prosecutor with whom she had a romantic relationship, stepped down to satisfy a judge’s ruling that one of them must go.

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Willis came under withering criticism for her relationship with Wade, but Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee found no disqualifying conflict of interest. Rather, McAfee said Friday that either Willis or Wade must step aside to correct a “significant appearance of impropriety.” Wade, who Willis hired in November 2021, resigned hours after the ruling.

“I am offering my resignation in the interest of democracy, in dedication to the American public, and to move this case forward as quickly as possible,” Wade wrote to Willis in a letter, which ABC reported.

“The Fani Willis lover, Mr. Nathan Wade Esq., has just resigned in disgrace,” Trump wrote in a social media post.

The judge said the appearance of impropriety threatens public confidence in the legal system, and an outsider could think Willis 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,” he wrote.

The ruling is a setback for Trump and his co-defendants, who claimed Willis financially benefited from hiring Wade, paying him more than $650,000 and taking several vacations with him. But Trump and other co-defendants succeeded in tarnishing the reputation of Willis, an elected Democrat. Both Willis and Wade testified in an extraordinary misconduct hearing that they did nothing wrong and the DA received no financial benefit from the relationship.

Trump Trials Timing

Trump co-defendant Michael Roman disclosed the relationship in a Jan. 8 filing, sparking the former president and others to join the effort to dismiss the racketeering indictment or remove Willis, Wade and the DA’s office. The scandal halted progress on the case, one of four indictments against Trump as he seeks to return to the White House.

Read the full order here.

The ruling further clouds the timing of any Trump trial in Atlanta. Willis had sought an August trial for all 15 defendants, but McAfee had said he may split them in several groups. McAfee must schedule around three other pending Trump trials. Trump attorney Steve Sadow has also argued no trial could take place if the former president returns to the White House.

Trump’s other cases are also in limbo. A trial over hush-money payments to a porn star before the 2016 election was supposed to start March 25, but could be delayed by a month. Trump’s federal case over the 2020 election is delayed while the US Supreme Court weighs his claim of presidential immunity from criminal charges. And his trial over charges that he took classified records from the White House has been delayed without a date.

‘Appearance of Impropriety’

McAfee’s ruling handed a victory to Willis in the biggest case of her career, clearing her of the most serious allegations. But the decision falls far short of total exoneration, raising serious doubts about how she handled her relationship with Wade. He will likely step aside from leading the racketeering prosecution of Trump for leading efforts to overturn Joe Biden’s victory in 2020 in Georgia.

McAfee had ordered an evidentiary hearing on Roman’s explosive claims, which shifted the focus from allegations that Trump plotted to subvert the election in Georgia to intimate details about the romance between Willis and Wade. The multiday misconduct hearing drew widespread national publicity, dimming Willis’ once bright star.

The defendants “failed to meet their burden of proving that the district attorney acquired an actual conflict of interest” through her relationship with Wade, McAfee ruled.

‘Odor of Mendacity’

McAfee said “an odor of mendacity” hung over the hearing. While he couldn’t ferret all potential dishonesty from witnesses, “reasonable questions” remain about whether Willis and Wade “testified untruthfully about the timing of their relationship.”

The judge was unsparing in his criticism of Willis. She testified the relationship began after hiring Wade in November 2021 to lead the Trump prosecution. Defendants said it started earlier. The judge said that while defendants didn’t show that “financial gain flowing from her relationship” with Wade was a motivating factor, she demonstrated poor judgment.

“This finding is by no means an indication that the court condones this tremendous lapse in judgment or the unprofessional manner of the district attorney’s testimony,” McAfee wrote.

Sadow said McAfee should have ruled differently.

“The court did not afford appropriate significance to the prosecutorial misconduct of Willis and Wade, including the financial benefits,” Sadow said. “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.”

Both Wade and Willis testified that they split costs evenly during four vacations they took together to Napa Valley, Aruba and the Caribbean. Both said she reimbursed him in cash.

“Such a reimbursement practice may be unusual and the lack of any documentary corroboration understandably concerning,” the judge said. “Yet the testimony withstood direct contradiction, was corroborated by other evidence” and “was not so incredible as to be inherently unbelievable.”

Key Witness Faulted

A key witness was Terrence Bradley, a former law partner of Wade who once represented him in his rancorous divorce. Roman attorney Ashleigh Merchant said Bradley told her the relationship began before Willis hired Wade. But on the witness stand, Bradley repeatedly said he couldn’t recall when it began and he was “speculating” in his texts with Merchant.

McAfee wrote that he was “unable to place any stock” in Bradley’s testimony. “His inconsistencies, demeanor, and generally non-responsive answers left far too brittle a foundation upon which to build any conclusions,” the judge wrote.

The judge was also critical of a Jan. 14 speech that Willis gave at a historically Black church in Atlanta. She defended Wade as a “superstar, a great friend and a great lawyer.” She said her critics were “playing the race card.”

The effect of the speech, McAfee said, was to “cast racial aspersions” on Roman for filing his motion. While it didn’t deny the defendants the chance at a fair trial, it was “still legally improper” and was the type of comment that “creates dangerous waters for the district attorney to wade further into,” McAfee wrote.

“The time may well have arrived for an order preventing the state from mentioning the case in any public forum to prevent prejudicial pretrial publicity,” the judge wrote.

--With assistance from Chris Strohm and Patricia Hurtado.

(Updates with Trump post in fourth paragraph. An earlier version corrected a reference to Wade in the second paragraph.)

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