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Lead prosecutor in Georgia election subversion case under scrutiny over alleged affair with DA

Jan 12, 2024, 5:55 PM

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis...

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, flanked by Nathan Wade on her left, speaks at a news conference on August 14, 2023 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Megan Varner/Getty Images)

(Megan Varner/Getty Images)

Fulton County, GA (CNN) — When Nathan Wade was appointed lead prosecutor in the Georgia election interference case in 2021 to prosecute former President Donald Trump, some of his closest allies, lawyers in Cobb County where Wade practiced law, universally wondered, “Why him?”

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis had the largest staff of any judicial circuit in Georgia, including salaried lawyers with more experience as felony prosecutors. Wade had once been a prosecutor briefly, but mostly handled misdemeanors and never such a high-profile case.

More than two years later, questions are surfacing about Wade’s role. One of Trump’s co-defendants facing criminal charges over efforts to overturn the 2020 election has alleged in court papers that Wade is romantically involved with Willis and used money he billed the district attorney’s office for his work on the case to take her on lavish vacations.

While the filing didn’t include direct evidence of their romantic involvement, Willis was served this week with a subpoena to appear at a deposition in Wade’s divorce proceedings.

Pallavi Bailey, a spokesperson for Willis, told CNN that the office will respond to the allegations “through appropriate court filings.”

Wade has not responded to CNN’s requests for comment and was smiling as he walked into a scheduled Friday afternoon motions hearing regarding multiple matters related to the case.

The situation has created a political firestorm for Willis, with Trump and his co-defendant arguing Wade, Willis and the entire district attorney’s office should be taken off the case. The allegations, if true, may not derail the prosecution, but multiple lawyers tell CNN that the appearance of a conflict of interest could hurt Willis’ chances of securing a conviction before a jury.

The judge overseeing the case said on Friday that he planned to hold a hearing on the allegations in early February.

Former DeKalb County District Attorney Robert James does not question Wade’s qualifications but does have concerns with Willis’ decision to bring him onto the case – if the allegations of an improper relationship hold up.

“If I had a personal relationship, I probably would have not done it,” James said in an interview with CNN, “not because there’s anything inappropriate about it, only because people will take it, twist it and make it look like there’s something inappropriate going on.”

“It’s, just politically, is not something that I think is wise,” James said.

Michael Moore, a former US Attorney in Georgia and a CNN legal analyst, said Willis should consider stepping away from the case given its high-profile nature.

“I’d tell her to get out of the case. I really think in this type of case with these allegations, this case is bigger than any one prosecutor,” Moore told CNN. “And I think probably to preserve the case to show what’s most important to her is the facts of the Trump case as opposed to her political career if you will at this moment.”

On Friday, the Republican chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, sent a letter requesting that Wade turn over documents and communications pertaining to the Georgia investigation into Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election.

Republicans on the Judiciary Committee have long sought to undermine the credibility of Willis’ case. Her office has rebuffed previous demands from Jordan’s asking for documents.

An undisclosed contact with the White House

The allegations against Willis and Wade came in a 127-page court filing this week from Michael Roman, a former Trump 2020 campaign official who was indicted over his role in the fake electors plot in Georgia.

Trump’s team is actively considering whether to join Roman’s motion, a move that would represent a formal endorsement of its allegations about both Wade and Willis, according to two sources familiar with the matter.

But there is no sign Trump is in a rush – he can amplify these allegations publicly with little legal risk while waiting to see how the DA’s team responds, the sources said. A Cobb County court has a hearing scheduled January 31 to address Roman’s motion to unseal documents in Wade’s divorce case.

Trump and his political allies are also seizing on entries in Wade’s expense reports that show previously undisclosed contact between Fulton County prosecutors and the Biden White House, claiming they are proof of a coordinated conspiracy to tank the former president’s reelection bid.

The expense reports were included as exhibits in Roman’s filing, showing a phone call with the White House counsel’s office in May 2022 and an “interview with DC/White House” in November 2022.

White House visitor logs from November 2022 show they do not contain any entries for Nathan Wade, according to a CNN review of those records.

Sources familiar with the matter tell CNN the contacts were routine, as Willis was gathering evidence and witnesses to testify before a special grand jury as part of her investigation at that time. One source said the discussions with the White House counsel’s office were about the process for contacting former Trump White House officials.

‘That’s ridiculous’

One line item stood out to multiple lawyers who reviewed Wade’s billing document included in the motion filed by Roman: On November 5, 2021, Wade billed the Fulton County DA for 24 hours in a day at $250 per hour.

“That’s ridiculous,” Fulton County criminal defense attorney Suri Chada Jimenez told CNN. “He could have billed 12 hours at $500 and that’s more credible and along with the rate of other lawyers.”

CNN has not been able to confirm what Wade did that day, but it was almost half a year before the special purpose grand jury was empaneled with investigative powers to spearhead exploring whether crimes were committed in Georgia by Trump and his associates.

Over the past two years, Wade has earned more than $650,000 for his work on the case, according to Roman’s filing which includes invoices from Wade’s firm. The filing alleges that Wade made more than other prosecutors in the DA’s office.

“Prosecutors must be held to the highest standard because unlike us poor defense lawyers they get to take away people’s liberty,” criminal defense attorney Scott Grubman told CNN. Grubman faced off against Wade as the former defense attorney for one-time Trump co-defendant Ken Chesebro, who struck a plea deal with Willis’ team last year.

Others who know Wade and spoke to CNN on conditions of anonymity now worry the allegations could taint Fulton prosecutors’ case against Trump.

“Now, you’ve made it that much harder at having a chance at securing any sort of conviction,” a lawyer who knows Wade personally told CNN. “It’s disappointing.”

Previous missteps

This is not the first criticism of missteps against Willis and Wade to surface in the high-profile case.

In 2022, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney, the judge who oversaw the initial investigation by Fulton prosecutors which lead to the historic state charges, disqualified Willis from pursuing charges against Georgia state Sen. Burt Jones, who also served as a pro-Trump fake elector. The judge’s decision came after Willis held a fundraiser for Jones’ Democratic political opponent and later informed the state Senator, he was a target of her probe.

In a court hearing on the issue, McBurney criticized Willis for hosting the fundraiser for a Democratic candidate running against one of the investigation’s potential targets.

“It’s a ‘What are you thinking?’ moment,” McBurney said. “The optics are horrific.”

And last year, multiple defendants in the election subversion case complained after they received an advertisement brochure mailer at their homes from Wade & Campbell, Nathan Wade’s Atlanta-based defense firm.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee, who oversees the Fulton case, rejected requests from several defendants in the Georgia election subversion case to have a hearing about the brochure to try to force some type of punishment.

McAfee said the incident was “embarrassing” for prosecutors, but did not find proof it was intentional. “While presumably embarrassing on the part of Special Prosecutor Wade and his firm, this case should not be sidetracked by matters which facially lack merit,” McAfee wrote in his September 2023 order.

Who is Nathan Wade

Wade’s biography on the website of his Atlanta law firm Wade & Campbell describes him as a “former prosecutor and trial attorney” who is a “skilled negotiator who knows when to take a case to trial.”

He was appointed to oversee the 2020 election subversion investigation by Willis in late 2021, as their special purpose grand jury investigation was ramping up.

Wade & Campbell’s website says the partnership focuses on personal injury, contract litigation law, family and domestic law, and criminal defense. And says that Wade serves as Associate Municipal Court Judge and Pro Has State Court Judge in Cobb County.

Manny Arora, a defense attorney who also worked with Grubman representing Chesebro before he negotiated a plea deal, told CNN he is more concerned by Wade’s “utter lack of experience” more so than the alleged affair and potential payments being made.

“The bigger concern (than the alleged affair and financial payments) is hiring an attorney to handle the biggest RICO case, possibly in the history of US jurisprudence, when that counsel has never handled a RICO case before,” Arora told CNN.

John Floyd, a lawyer with deep expertise in racketeering cases, joined Willis’ team in 2021 to focus on the Trump case as well as others, including Willis’ gang indictment against the rapper Young Thug.

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Lead prosecutor in Georgia election subversion case under scrutiny over alleged affair with DA