Lawyer behind effort to remove Fani Willis from Georgia Trump case testifies before state lawmakers

ATLANTA (AP) — The lawyer who initiated the effort to remove Fani Willis from the Georgia election interference case against Donald Trump walked state lawmakers through her investigation into the Fulton County district attorney's romantic relationship with a special prosecutor and why she believes it creates a conflict of interest.

Ashleigh Merchant, who represents Trump co-defendant Michael Roman, was subpoenaed to appear Wednesday before a specially appointed Georgia state Senate committee tasked with investigating whether Willis engaged in misconduct. Willis' relationship with special prosecutor Nathan Wade, whom she hired to manage the election interference case, was first exposed in a motion filed on Jan. 8 by Merchant that seeks to toss out the indictment and to bar Willis and her office from continuing the prosecution.

Merchant's testimony before the legislative committee came on the heels of an extraordinary court hearing that spanned several days. Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee is expected to rule by the end of next week on whether to disqualify Willis and her office from the case that accuses Trump and others of illegally trying to overturn the former president’s loss to Democrat Joe Biden in the 2020 election in Georgia.

Answering questions under oath for three and a half hours Wednesday, Merchant ended up retreading much of the ground that had been covered in court. Unencumbered by objections from prosecutors and the frustrations of questioning a reluctant witness, Merchant recounted how her investigation unfolded and the evidence she had gathered.

Merchant and lawyers for Trump and the other defendants have argued that Willis paid Wade large sums for his work and then personally benefitted when he paid for vacations, saying that creates a conflict of interest. Willis and Wade both acknowledged the relationship happened but said it didn’t start until after Wade was hired, that they split travel costs and that it had no bearing on the criminal case.

Speaking at the start of the legislative hearing, state Sen. Bill Cowsert, a lawyer and the Republican chair of the committee, told Merchant that the allegations in her motion had generated public concern about what constitutes appropriate conduct and possible financial improprieties. He said the committee was charged with finding the facts and, if necessary, amending laws or creating new ones to provide guardrails to “restore the public faith in our criminal justice system and its impartiality and its fairness.”

Cowsert has said the committee, made up of six Republicans and three Democrats, is not leading a “witch hunt,” and it cannot directly sanction Willis. But Democrats have been skeptical of this and other efforts to investigate or punish Willis since she began investigating Trump.

Visiting the state Capitol Wednesday afternoon to qualify to run for reelection, Willis dismissed those efforts as “a political quest.”

“I think that people are angry because I’m going to do the right thing and I’m going to stand up for justice, no matter who is the person that may have done wrong in Fulton County," she told reporters. "So they can continue on with their games and I’m going to continue to do the work of the people.”

Cowsert was particularly interested in the workings of a special grand jury that aided Willis' investigation and in the rules surrounding the hiring of outside lawyers as special prosecutors in criminal cases. He suggested those are areas where legislators might consider adding statutory authority or limitations.

Cowsert seemed skeptical of the invoices Wade submitted to the district attorney's office, which have few details and charge by blocks of hours rather than the smaller increments generally favored by lawyers. He also wanted to know about the process for approving invoices for payment and asked a lot of questions about how Wade was paid much more than two other special prosecutors hired for the case.

Cowsert also wanted to hear how Merchant uncovered the relationship.

The Atlanta-area legal community is small and a lot of people had been surprised to see Wade appointed to the election interference investigation, she said. Merchant, who lives in Cobb County where Wade lived and practiced, said Wade's former law partner, Terrence Bradley, called her because he had seen a news article on her efforts to look into money that had been paid to Wade and his partners through contracts with Willis' office. He told her Willis had called him after that article was published.

Merchant said she then ran into Bradley at the courthouse and was sitting talking to him and other lawyers when he walked her through the timeline of the relationship, saying it began shortly after Willis and Wade met at a judicial conference in October 2019. He then continued to feed her details for the next several months and she used that information to guide her investigation and to file open records requests.

Bradley did not want people to know he had been talking to her, she said. He was also upset when people close to Wade reached out to him the weekend after Merchant's motion was filed to see if he was her source and encourage him not to talk, she said. When she called him to testify last month, expecting him to be a crucial witness, he repeatedly said he didn't know or couldn't remember key details.

At the end of the hearing Wednesday, State Sen. Harold Jones, a member of the Democratic minority, questioned Merchant. After going back and forth with her, he seemed unsatisfied with Merchant's explanation of how the relationship created a conflict that affected her client.