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How Allegations of an Office Romance Came to Complicate the Case Against Trump

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How Allegations of an Office Romance Came to Complicate the Case Against Trump

January 20, 2024

in News

How Allegations of an Office Romance Came to Complicate the Case Against Trump

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Fani T. Willis ran for district attorney in Georgia’s Fulton County in 2020 with the slogan “Integrity matters!” and frequently pummeled the incumbent, her former boss, with accusations of ethical lapses. Soon after her victory, she set up a group to interview job candidates called the Integrity Transition Hiring Committee.

One of its members was Nathan J. Wade, a lawyer and municipal court judge from the Atlanta suburbs whom she counted as a longtime friend and mentor. Indeed, it was the personal bond they shared that Ms. Willis has described as a key to her decision to hire him to lead the criminal case of a lifetime: her office’s prosecution of former President Donald J. Trump for his efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss.

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“I need someone I can trust,” she said in a 2022 interview.

But in recent days, allegations have surfaced that Mr. Wade was not only a mentor to Ms. Willis, but also a romantic partner.

The allegations appeared in a court motion filed this month by Michael Roman, one of Mr. Trump’s 14 co-defendants in the Georgia case. In an interview with The New York Times, a person familiar with the situation said the two had grown close after meeting in a legal education course for judges in 2019 — some two years before Ms. Willis hired Mr. Wade as special prosecutor in the Trump case.

The two lawyers had at times been affectionate with each other in public settings, the person said.

Ms. Willis has not addressed the allegations of a romantic relationship, nor has Mr. Wade. Ms. Willis’s office said it would reply to Mr. Roman’s motion in court filings.

On Friday, credit card statements included in a filing in Mr. Wade’s divorce case show that he purchased airline tickets for himself and Ms. Willis on April 25, 2023, for a trip from Atlanta to San Francisco, and on Oct. 4, 2022, for a trip to Miami.

They appear to partially support the contention in Mr. Roman’s motion that Mr. Wade and Ms. Willis had made trips to numerous vacation spots together, with Mr. Wade paying for some of the travel.

Whether these new revelations will disrupt the Trump case — or Ms. Willis and Mr. Wade’s role in it — remains unclear. Mr. Roman’s motion argues that Ms. Willis and Mr. Wade violated the state bar’s rules of professional conduct, the county code regarding conflicts of interest and, possibly, federal law. It calls for the case against Mr. Roman to be dismissed, and for Mr. Wade, Ms. Willis and Ms. Willis’s entire office to be disqualified from the case.

In a letter to Ms. Willis on Friday, the county commissioner who chairs the board’s audit committee, Bob Ellis, demanded documents from her in an effort to determine whether county funds paid to Mr. Wade “were converted to your personal gain in the form of subsidized travel or other gifts.”

At the very least, the revelations have raised questions about Ms. Willis’s motivation for hiring Mr. Wade, a legal generalist who appears to act as a sort of player-manager for the prosecution’s multi-lawyer team.

A review of Mr. Wade’s more than two decades as a lawyer by The New York Times also raises the issue of his qualifications, and whether they were sufficient to justify his appointment to a job that has made him more than $650,000 in taxpayer dollars and catapulted him to the top of one of the highest-profile criminal cases in the country.

As a fixture on the legal and political scene in suburban Cobb County, Mr. Wade spent years handling low-level criminal cases, first as a prosecutor and then a judge. But he yearned to take on weightier work. And while he landed some, defending clients in a number of serious felony cases, his dream of being elected a superior court judge, where he could preside over bigger cases, was repeatedly denied to him by voters.

Mr. Wade’s publicly available record as a lawyer shows scant evidence that he prosecuted major criminal cases, with no evidence that he has handled a major political corruption case or one involving the state’s complicated racketeering statute, known as RICO, under which all of the defendants in the Trump case have been charged.

“The realm of attorneys who handle Georgia RICO cases is a small one, and he is not someone who was in that realm before the Trump case,” said Chris Timmons, an Atlanta trial lawyer who handled white-collar cases for more than 15 years as a prosecutor.

Several former Georgia prosecutors say that Mr. Wade’s fee, of $250 per hour, did not seem excessive. But some of them also questioned whether he had the qualifications to lead such a high-stakes case.

“I can’t judge on whether it’s a legitimate hire, but I think it’s a legitimate question to ask why this particular lawyer was hired,” said Danny Porter, the former longtime district attorney in Gwinnett County and a Republican.

Speaking recently at a historically Black church in Atlanta, Ms. Willis said that the questions raised about her hiring of Mr. Wade were racist. She praised Mr. Wade’s “impeccable credentials” and said they were being questioned because both she and Mr. Wade were Black.

Mr. Wade could not be reached for comment for this story. But his defenders point to the measurable successes the prosecution team has notched so far under his stewardship. Prosecutors have obtained four guilty pleas from the original cast of 19 co-defendants, and beaten back, so far, an effort to have the case moved to the federal court system, which would offer some advantages to the defendants.

Gerald A. Griggs, a lawyer and the president of the state N.A.A.C.P. who knows both Mr. Wade and Ms. Willis personally, noted that as a defense lawyer, Mr. Wade brings a valuable perspective to a team that includes a number of veteran prosecutors.

A defense lawyer “can show you where the holes are to make sure your case is strong,” he said.

From traffic tickets to felonies

Mr. Wade, according to an old job application, was born in Houston, studied at Texas State University, then went on to attend John Marshall Law School in Atlanta. He once told an Atlanta-area magazine, Cobb in Focus, that his career path was influenced by his father, a Vietnam veteran, and by early involvement in church activities that sparked an interest in public speaking.

By the late 1990s, Mr. Wade was in Cobb County, where he spent some time as an assistant solicitor, a prosecuting job that handles traffic cases and minor crimes. He moved to private practice to focus on civil matters but told the magazine that he continued to do some prosecution work for local municipalities.

Mr. Wade’s civil cases have ranged from divorces to paternity matters, child support, car accidents, small claims and personal injury issues. The

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