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Georgia judge to hear evidence on Trump prosecutors’ dealings

An Atlanta judge said Monday he will hold a hearing later this week on the romance between the two prosecutors pursuing an election interference case against former President Donald J. Trump and a number of his allies.

Revelations about the relationship and accusations from defense lawyers that it caused a conflict of interest created turmoil around the case. The defense is seeking to disqualify both prosecutors — Fulton County District Attorney Fani T. Willis and Nathan J. Wade, whom it hired to lead the case.

“It is clear that a disqualification can occur if evidence is produced demonstrating an actual conflict or the appearance of a conflict,” Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee said at a hearing Monday after -noon.

He added that “because I believe it is possible that the facts alleged by the defendant could result in disqualification, I believe an evidentiary hearing should be held to establish the case on these primary allegations.” »

At Monday’s hearing, Judge McAfee refused to quash subpoenas sent by the defense team to a number of witnesses, including Ms. Willis and Mr. Wade. If those witnesses testify, it will likely turn Thursday’s scheduled hearing into a public disclosure of details about the romantic relationship.

But the judge also ruled out looking into the qualifications of Mr. Wade, who defense lawyers said lacked experience and was not qualified to handle such a high-profile case. The judge said that, “in my mind, as long as a lawyer has a heartbeat and a bar card,” the appointment would be “a matter within prosecutorial discretion.”.”

Allegations of a relationship between Mr. Wade and Ms. Willis first surfaced in a motion filed Jan. 8 by Michael Roman, a former Trump campaign official. Mr. Roman, along with Mr. Trump and 13 others, face criminal charges for trying to overturn the former president’s 2020 election defeat in Georgia.

After refusing to respond to the allegations for nearly a month, Ms. Willis and Mr. Wade acknowledged their relationship in a recent court filing. They said it only started after Mr. Wade was hired in November 2021, although Ashleigh Merchant, Mr. Roman’s lawyer, says she has a witness who can counter that.

Ms. Merchant argues that the relationship created a conflict of interest and should be grounds to disqualify Mr. Wade, Ms. Willis and her entire office from the Trump case — a situation that would throw the case into disarray .

Ms. Willis has fought back with documents that paint the effort as a publicity stunt with no legal basis.

Ms Merchant’s conflict of interest argument is based in part on the fact that Ms Willis took a number of holidays with Mr Wade which he paid for. This, Ms Merchant argues, has given rise to “a form of self-dealing” and a scenario in which “the more one works on the case (regardless of what justice requires), the more they get paid”. (Ms. Willis said the costs of the joint personal trips were “split about equally” between her and Mr. Wade).

In court on Monday, Ms. Merchant made clear that much of her argument relied on the testimony of Terrence Bradley, a lawyer who worked with Mr. Wade and for a time represented Mr. Wade in his case divorce in progress. At one point the judge referred to Mr Bradley as Ms Merchant’s “star witness”.

But Anna Cross, a lawyer who appeared on behalf of the prosecutor’s office, said the “chronology presented” by Ms. Merchant is “either wrong” or “simply fabricated.” She also argued that it would be inappropriate for Mr. Bradley to appear, given his attorney-client relationship with Mr. Wade.

“The defense doesn’t bring you facts,” Ms. Cross said. “The defense does not bring you the law. The defense brings you gossip, and the state cannot, and the court should not, tolerate this practice.

The judge’s decision to hold a hearing is, at least in the short term, a blow to Ms. Willis, who had hoped to avoid a hearing and have the judge reject the disqualification request on a question of law.

A number of outside legal observers said the attempted disqualification was based on flimsy legal arguments, but some said the judge could be influenced by the idea that the relationship gives the appearance of impropriety and an unfair prosecution.

Caren Morrison, an associate professor of law at Georgia State University, said Thursday’s hearing would likely provide more ammunition for Mr. Trump and his allies and their argument that the lawsuits are unfair.

“Even if she could ultimately win and demonstrate that there was no real conflict of interest,” Ms. Morrison said of Ms. Willis, “it’s still just very bad news for the case overall.” , in terms of public perception.

These allegations do not change the underlying facts of the case, which accuse Mr. Trump and his allies of conspiring to overturn the results of Georgia’s 2020 presidential election as part of a broader plan to thwart the will of voters in swing states.

Four of the original 19 defendants have pleaded guilty in the Georgia case, including some of Mr. Trump’s most zealous defenders after the 2020 election.

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