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Fani Willis' court filing confirms romantic relationship with lawyer on Trump case but denies any conflict

Rep. Jim Jordan subpoenas DA Fani Willis
Rep. Jim Jordan subpoenas Fulton County DA Fani Willis 03:40

Lawyers for Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis formally acknowledged in a court filing that she had a romantic relationship with lawyer Nathan Wade, whom she appointed to lead the Georgia prosecution of Donald Trump, but they vigorously pushed back against allegations of financial conflicts and the contention she should be disqualified from the case.

In an affidavit by Wade submitted Friday with Willis' court filing — both obtained by CBS News — Wade stated, "In 2022, District Attorney Willis and I developed a personal relationship in addition to our professional association and friendship. I have no financial interest in the outcome of the 2020 election interference case or in the conviction of any defendant. No funds paid to me in compensation for my role as Special Prosecutor have been shared with or provided to District Attorney Willis."

In the filing, Willis' attorneys responded to the allegations by saying, "This is not an example of zealous advocacy, nor is it a good faith effort to develop a record on a disputed legal issue—it is a ticket to the circus." And the filing condemns the "incredibly inappropriate efforts to intrude into opposing counsel's personal life with little to no evidentiary value."

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis Speaks During A News Conference in Atlanta, Georgia
File: Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis at a news conference on Aug. 14, 2023 in Atlanta. Special prosecutor Nathan Wade stands next to her. Joshua Lott/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Willis' response comes after one of Trump's co-defendants in the Georgia election conspiracy case leveled allegations against her earlier this month. Michael Roman, a former Republican National Committee staffer and Trump campaign official, alleged that Willis had an improper relationship with Wade, paid him more than $650,000 for his work and then benefited financially from the relationship when Wade allegedly took her on Caribbean cruises and trips to Miami and Napa Valley, California.

Trump co-defendant argued Willis should be disqualified from prosecuting Georgia Trump case

Ashleigh Merchant, Roman's lawyer, argued in the motion that Willis and her entire office should be disqualified from prosecuting the case and that all of the charges against Roman should be dropped. The filing provided no supporting evidence of the claims. However, a separate filing in Wade's divorce case from his estranged wife, Jocelyn Wade, who also alleged that he and Willis had been romantically involved, included credit card receipts from her husband's business account that seemed to show he had paid for the trips. 

Willis had not commented directly on the allegations, although at a speech in January at a historically Black church, in which she defended Nathan Wade, she made oblique references to herself as "flawed" and "imperfect."

"Zero chance" Willis will step aside from Trump case, source says

Roman's motion has plunged Willis' case into turmoil, with Republicans in the Georgia State Legislature voting last week to create a special panel to investigate Willis's conduct while calls mounted for her to step aside in order to remove any taint from the case. A source close to Willis tells CBS News that "there is zero chance that will happen."

Instead, on Friday, the DA's office filed a response to the Roman motion that argued that Willis' relationship with Nathan Wade has no bearing on the case or her ability to prosecute it.  

The filing asserts that the relationship between Willis and Wade developed long after he was hired to lead the Trump prosecution. Wade and his wife separated in August 2021. A source close to Willis said Willis and Wade began seeing each other "around early to mid-2022." Wade was hired in November of 2021. That is a crucial distinction in light of the suggestion that she hired Wade because of their intimate relationship. His hiring for the position has drawn criticism because he has little prior experience prosecuting complex felony cases. In Wade's affidavit, Willis' team sought to bolster Wade's credentials by adding a timeline of his career and pointing out that he has tried felonies in both state and federal court and has taught judicial training classes to new judges in Georgia. Merchant has alleged that the relationship had already started when Willis tapped Wade, though she has so far provided no evidence to support that claim.  

Willis paid for some of the trips with Wade, according to affidavit

The DA's office also asserts that Willis and Wade alternated paying for their joint personal travel, with Willis paying for some trips — as well as meals and other incidentals. Wade's affidavit contains receipts for a flight to Miami from November 2022 for the two of them that Wade says were paid for by Willis.

"They are two middle-aged lawyers each with a substantial income," said a source familiar with the arrangement. "The boy wines and dines the nice girl wasn't where their headspace was," said the source.

Roman's lawyer contends that Willis' relationship with Wade and their financial entanglements created a conflict of interest that requires her to be removed from the case. Willis argued in her reply that the relationship with Wade poses no conflict of interest under Georgia law because it does not give either Willis or Wade a vested interest — financial or otherwise — in the outcome of the prosecution.

Nor does it impinge on Roman's constitutional or due process rights or those of any of the other Trump co-defendants, the filing argues. Some legal scholars think that based on currently known facts, the relationship should not derail the case.

"Merchant's argument fails to show how Fani Willis would benefit financially from a conviction, which is the key question when determining whether disqualification is necessary," said Anthony Michael Kreis, a law professor at Georgia State University College of Law. "Nor does Merchant argue that but for Nathan Wade's involvement, these charges would not have come out of the grand jury. So the case is thin, as of now," Kreis added.  

In their filing, the DA's attorneys accuse the defense of trying to conflate media attention with personal financial gain and failing to take into account the negative attention Willis has received, such as "ongoing personal security threats, racial slurs, sexual invective, and attacks." The filing includes an exhibit highlighting some of the threats sent to Willis. One vulgar handwritten message curses her with a racist sexual slur, calls her "a sellout" and tells her to "watch that family!!!" Another cuts and pastes her face next to a noose and a smiley face.

Judge Scott McAfee, who is presiding over the Trump election interference case, scheduled an evidentiary hearing for Feb. 15 to consider Roman's motion. On Wednesday, Merchant issued subpoenas to a dozen witnesses, including Willis and Wade, whom she says she intends to call to testify at the hearing. It's not clear whether Willis and Wade will challenge the subpoenas or whether Judge McAfee will require them to testify.

Trump co-defendant Michael Roman contends DA's office not being candid or transparent

Roman responded to the Willis filing, contending that the DA's office was not being candid or transparent.

"If they had nothing to hide in the first place because they did nothing wrong, then why did they intentionally not tell anyone about it until they got caught with their hand in the cookie jar?" his motion reads. 

Willis' office says that a hearing on this matter isn't necessary because the law has not been broken. Roman's team says it has the right to cross examine Wade regarding what he stated in his affidavit regarding the timeframe of the romantic relationship between Wade and Willis, as well as his assertion that he never cohabitated with Willis.

Willis and Wade received a reprieve on one front Tuesday: Wade and his estranged wife settled their divorce case — at least on a temporary basis. That means that for now, neither the D.A. nor her deputy will have to testify in that case. The development also cuts off a line of litigation that could have brought forth more embarrassing revelations, as the divorce case has already done.  

Willis wanted to gather all the facts before responding to Roman's motion

It has been more than three weeks since Roman and his lawyer filed the bombshell motion. The radio silence from Willis and her team created a void that was filled with brutal media coverage and a drumbeat of officials, mostly Republicans — but some Democrats, too — calling for more investigations or for Willis' resignation.  

Sources tell CBS News that Willis wanted to gather all of the facts before responding, arguing the worst thing they could do would be to put out information that would then be contradicted. "We needed to get all of our ducks in a row," said one source.  

Also contributing to the delay were divisions between some of the lawyers and the more public relations-minded members of Willis' team, according to a source close to Willis. The lawyers have been reluctant to disclose any more information than they need to prevail in their legal arguments. The more facts they put out, the more legal wrangling there will be over the veracity of those facts. Others on the team recognize that they are dealing with a media spectacle, and the absence of any response to the allegations of an improper relationship is feeding the frenzied coverage. It was Willis in the end who insisted on an accounting of the relationship in the filing, according to a source close to her. 

Those close to Willis say she was badly rattled in the aftermath of the revelations, distraught to see her private life aired and chagrined to be criticized after a career with so many accolades. But since then, they say, she has steadied and is primed to fight it out in court and eventually in the public arena, if necessary. "Fani is going to stick it out," says a source familiar with her state of mind.

Jared Eggleston contributed to this report.

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