A defense lawyer in the Fulton County election interference case against former President Donald Trump Wednesday outlined her reasons for seeking to disqualify Fulton District Attorney Fani Willis.

Ashleigh Merchant, who represents co-defendant Michael Roman in the racketeering case against Trump, told a state Senate committee Willis never would have been allowed to hire Nathan Wade to lead the prosecution if she had disclosed she was involved in a romantic relationship with him.

Merchant also claimed Willis failed to get the Fulton County Commission to approve a contract with Wade that has paid him $700,000 thus far and is guilty of a conflict of interest in that she benefited financially from both the contract and the relationship.

“They were sleeping together and going on trips he was paying for and not disclosing it to the taxpayers,” Merchant testified during a three-hour hearing before the Senate Special Committee on Investigations, a panel the Republican-controlled Senate formed in January to look into the conflict accusations lodged against Willis.

“We’ve heard a lot of the allegations,” said committee Chairman Bill Cowsert, R-Athens. “We’re tasked with investigating and finding the true facts.”

Merchant filed a motion in Fulton County Superior Court in January seeking to have Willis disqualified from prosecuting the case because of her romantic relationship with the lead prosecutor. Willis and Wade subsequently acknowledged the relationship but argued it doesn’t constitute grounds for disqualification.

On Wednesday, Merchant testified that Willis asked the county commission for more money in September 2021, indicating she needed it to address a backlog mostly of homicide cases. The commission allocated $780,000 for that purpose to cover expenses through the end of year and authorized up to $5 million for the following year, Merchant said.

Merchant said Willis never disclosed she was going to use those funds to hire a special prosecutor for the election interference case. According to Merchant, Willis maintained that she didn’t have to get the commission’s approval for how she planned to spend the money because she is an elected constitutional officer.

“There’s really no oversight,” Merchant said. “I know she’s an elected official, but it’s still public money.”

Merchant also criticized Wade’s billing procedures for the work he was doing as sloppy, which made it difficult to track. She showed examples of the bills he submitted to the county to the committee.

“This isn’t anything we could submit to a client,” she said. “You have to be detailed in billing.”

Merchant went on to reiterate allegations she and other lawyers representing Trump and other defendants made during two recent hearings before Fulton Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee on the disqualification motion, including that her romantic relationship with Wade began before she hired him and that Wade was not qualified to handle such a case because he had never prosecuted a felony.

Wade and Willis testified during the first of those hearings that their relationship did not start until after he was hired.

During the second hearing, an assistant prosecutor representing Willis’ office dismissed cellphone records that show almost 2,000 phone calls and 9,800 text messages between Wade and Willis during the first 11 months of 2021. Adam Abbate questioned the ability of the technology to pinpoint Wade’s specific location.

Merchant also argued that Willis had a financial interest in extending the prosecution of the case as long as possible because she was benefiting financially through the trips she took with Wade, who paid nearly all of the expenses with his credit card.

“My client has a right to a fair and impartial prosecutor,” Merchant said. “We don’t think that’s happening in this case.”

Willis testified last month that she and Wade split the costs of the trips, with her reimbursing him in cash.

On Wednesday, Senate Minority Whip Harold Jones, D-Augusta, a member of the committee, pointed out that Wade offered a plea bargain to Roman, hardly the act of a prosecutor seeking to drag out a case.

“You say, ‘They wanted to extend the prosecution of my client,’ ” Jones told Merchant. “They were willing to cut it off.”

Jones also questioned Merchant’s characterization of Wade as unqualified to prosecute the election interference case, saying the fact that Wade won multiple indictments from a grand jury as well as several guilty pleas shows he has been effective.

McAfee is expected to issue a ruling on the disqualification motion by the end of next week.

Dave Williams writes for Capitol Beat News Service


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