Georgia Senate panel to investigate DA Willis

FILE - Georgia state Sen. Greg Dolezal, R-Cumming, speaks at the Georgia State Capitol on Monday, March 6, 2023, in Atlanta. Dolezal sponsored a resolution passed by the state Senate on Friday, Jan. 26, 2024, to create a special committee to investigate Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis. Republicans say she has personally benefitted from improperly conveying public money to special prosecutor Nathan Wade. (AP Photo/Alex Slitz, File)
FILE - Georgia state Sen. Greg Dolezal, R-Cumming, speaks at the Georgia State Capitol on Monday, March 6, 2023, in Atlanta. Dolezal sponsored a resolution passed by the state Senate on Friday, Jan. 26, 2024, to create a special committee to investigate Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis. Republicans say she has personally benefitted from improperly conveying public money to special prosecutor Nathan Wade. (AP Photo/Alex Slitz, File)

ATLANTA -- Georgia's state Senate joined attempts to investigate Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis on Friday, voting 30-19 to create a special committee that Republican senators say is needed to determine whether the Democratic district attorney misspent state tax money in her prosecution of former President Donald Trump and others.

"This has to do with following state funds," said Republican Sen. Matt Brass of Newnan. "We want to know where is our money going."

"Fulton County is prosecuting a former president of the United States," said Rick Dent, a Democratic strategist. "Everything has to be aboveboard, transparent and credible so that the American public will buy into what goes on in that courtroom."

The special committee, which doesn't require approval by the state House or Gov. Brian Kemp, is tasked with making recommendations on state laws and spending based on its findings. But the committee can't directly sanction Willis, and Democrats denounced it as a partisan attempt to try to play to Trump and his supporters.

"You're talking about partisan politics. That's all you're talking about," said Democratic Sen. David Lucas of Macon, who blasted Republicans for indulging in what he called "bedroom politics."

"Where was the special committee when the ex-president [Trump] called the secretary of state and said, 'find me 11,000 votes?'" Lucas said. "You didn't have a committee to investigate that."

TRUMP FILING

Trump on Thursday joined an effort by co-defendant Michael Roman to have Willis, special prosecutor Nathan Wade and their offices thrown off the case. Ashleigh Merchant, a lawyer for Roman, filed a motion Jan. 8 accusing Willis of having a romantic relationship with Wade that resulted in a conflict of interest. Trump has accused Willis of trying to unfairly prejudice a future jury by using a "glaring, flagrant, and calculated effort to foment racial bias into this case."

Willis has yet to respond publicly to the allegations of the relationship between her and Wade. But she vigorously defended Wade and his qualifications in a speech during a service honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at a historic Black church in Atlanta on Jan. 14. She suggested during that address that the questioning of Wade's hiring was rooted in racism.

Willis hired Wade as special prosecutor in the Trump case on Nov. 1, 2021, and he has been paid more than $650,000 so far for his work, records show.

Willis' office must file a response in Fulton County Superior Court by Feb. 2 to claims the DA benefited financially from the relationship. And a hearing is scheduled Wednesday in the ongoing divorce proceedings of Wade and his estranged wife, Joycelyn, which could provide additional ammunition to critics. Records from the divorce have fueled the scandal.

A filing in Wade's divorce case includes credit card statements that show Wade -- after he had been hired as special prosecutor -- bought plane tickets in October 2022 for him and Willis to travel to Miami and bought tickets in April to San Francisco in their names. Republican state Sen. Brandon Beach of Alpharetta said that Willis' employment of Wade is a "prosecution for personal profit scheme," contending that she has stretched out the Trump inquiry to keep paying Wade and derive personal benefit.

Legal experts say it's unlikely the accusations merit Willis' disqualification from the Trump case. Former DeKalb County DA Robert James said they "reek of smear and mudslinging."

But they could still undermine the criminal case even if Fulton Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee, who is overseeing the case, rules in Willis' favor. James believes the allegations could influence a jury pool to decide the case based on their feelings about Willis, rather than the evidence against the defendants.

"It's not what they're supposed to do, but it's what happens oftentimes when you charge celebrities or public officials, or the president of the United States, a former president of the United States," James said.

"I believe this scheme -- prosecution for personal profit -- was a fraud against the court and it was a fraud against you as a Georgia taxpayer," Beach said.

Beach raised questions about the integrity of Georgia's 2020 vote in the aftermath of the election and delivered testimony to a special grand jury that Wade helped advise in 2022.

The new panel would be able to issue subpoenas and require people to testify under oath -- powers that no other Georgia legislative committee routinely uses.

CRITICAL TIMING

People can already be prosecuted for making false statements to Georgia lawmakers. Those are among the criminal charges that Rudy Giuliani and some others face for the claims they made to Georgia lawmakers in late 2020. They claimed Georgia's election was marred by widespread fraud and that Trump and not Democrat Joe Biden was the rightful winner of the state's 16 electoral votes.

The action comes at the beginning of Georgia's 2024 legislative session, with all 56 Senate and 180 House seats up for election later this year. With few of the 56 Senate districts expected to be competitive between Republicans and Democrats, the most serious opposition that many lawmakers could face would be in their party primary in June. Attacks on Willis by Republicans and a defense of her by Democrats could deter primary challenges on both sides in advance of the March deadline for candidates to file for election.

Most of the top supporters are Republican lawmakers who also publicly backed Trump's efforts to overturn Georgia's 2020 election results, including Republican Lt. Gov. Burt Jones. Willis was barred from prosecuting Jones by a judge after she hosted a fundraiser for a Democratic opponent. Jones on Wednesday reaffirmed his support for Trump after the former president won the New Hampshire primary.

"I've never shied away from it," Jones told reporters. "I'm a Trump guy. I've been a Trump supporter since 2015."

Kemp, though, has said he favors a revived prosecutor oversight board looking into whether Willis did anything wrong, instead of a legislative committee.

Democratic Sen. Josh McLaurin accused Republicans of going down a "dangerous path" by catering to Republicans who have shown themselves willing to threaten violence against Georgia lawmakers seen as insufficiently supportive of Trump.

"If you guys think you can handle it -- if you think you can inflame that base, and feed them more, feed them misinformation, or let them persist in their misinformation about the results of elections -- and not face the consequences someday, I think you're mistaken," McLaurin said.

A LONG ROAD

In August, Willis charged Trump and 18 co-defendants in connection with participating in an illegal scheme to overturn Biden's 2020 victory in Georgia. Her team has already secured four guilty pleas. It also has fended off efforts to transfer the case to federal court -- where defendants such as Trump might get a more favorable jury -- and a slew of motions to dismiss the charges on various grounds.

Willis was one of the finalists for Time's Person of the Year and her name was often mentioned as a candidate for higher office.

Fulton County Commissioner Bob Ellis, a Republican, requested documents last week to audit Willis' payments to Wade. And on Wednesday the Democratic-controlled commission voted 6-1 to table an unrelated request from Willis: to spend $611,020 on new vehicles for her office.

Among other things, Republican Commissioner Bridget Thorne cited the Wade allegations and said she wanted to hold the funding until after an audit of the DA's office.

"She's been asked to comment on [the allegations]. She has not," Thorne said Wednesday of Willis. "And it is our fiduciary responsibility to make sure the taxpayers' dollars are spent wisely."

CALLS TO QUIT

Some Willis supporters believe Wade should resign.

"I think the only thing that can cure the situation is either the resignation or removal of [Wade]," said Buddy Darden, a former Cobb County DA and Democratic congressman. "It's not a personal criticism of him, but it's a very serious distraction."

Darden said Willis, as an elected constitutional officer, has a duty to Fulton voters to stay for the duration of her four-year term. She's up for reelection this fall.

Others believe Willis herself should go. Georgia State University law professor Clark Cunningham said Willis should consider taking a leave of absence, allowing a top deputy to prosecute the case and consider terminating Wade's contract.

Dent said Willis faces a political and public relations challenge -- not just a legal one.

"When there is silence, all your enemies, all your detractors and the general public will fill in the blank," Dent said. "I think it's been mishandled from the get-go. It's just been awful."

The House Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill has opened its own inquiry into the Wade allegations after spending months prodding Willis for information about the Trump case. U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., on Thursday filed a complaint with the State Ethics Commission.

Information for this article was contributed by Jeff Amy of The Associated Press and by David Wickert and Tamar Hallerman of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (TNS).

  photo  FILE - Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis speaks during an Associated Press interview on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2023, in Atlanta. The Georgia state Senate voted on Friday, Jan. 26, 2024, to create a special committee to investigate Willis, with Republicans claiming she has personally benefitted from improperly conveying public money to special prosecutor Nathan Wade. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, File)
 
 

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