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Trump plans to attend Georgia hearing on misconduct allegations against prosecutors

ATLANTA — Former President Donald Trump plans to attend a hearing Thursday in Atlanta on allegations that Fulton County Prosecutor Fani T. Willis (D) had an inappropriate personal relationship with the lead prosecutor in the election interference case, according to two people with knowledge of the plan.

Trump is scheduled to appear in New York the same day for a pretrial conference in a case scheduled for trial on March 25. Trump is charged with 34 counts of falsifying business records in connection with secret money payments to adult film actress Stormy. Daniels during the 2016 election.

If he goes to Atlanta, it will be his first court appearance in the sprawling racketeering case since a grand jury indicted him and 18 others in August. They are accused of criminally conspiring to try to overturn the 2020 presidential election in Georgia. At least one of those defendants, former Georgia GOP Chairman David Shafer, is also expected to attend. If more people do the same, Thursday could provide a first glimpse of what a trial involving multiple defendants could look like.

If Trump attends Thursday’s hearing, he will be able to witness Willis’ personal life and professional integrity being examined and called into question. His appearance would likely bring even more attention and perhaps chaos to the already highly anticipated audience.

It was unclear whether the Fulton County Courthouse was prepared for such a visit. A spokeswoman for the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office, which oversees security at the building, said she was not aware of Trump’s plans. The two people who said Trump planned to visit Atlanta spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss it publicly.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee, who is overseeing the case, ruled Monday that the hearing would continue over Willis’ objections because an actual conflict or appearance of one constitutes grounds for disqualification of Willis from the case. However, McAfee said he would not accept testimony at the hearing regarding Prosecutor Nathan Wade’s alleged lack of qualifications for his job, noting that it is within the prosecutor’s discretion to hire anyone with “a heartbeat and a bar chart.”

McAfee said the hearing will focus on whether Willis benefited financially from hiring Wade, when their romantic relationship began and whether it continued.

“I think it’s clear that disqualification can occur if evidence is produced demonstrating actual conflict or the appearance of conflict,” McAfee said, noting that Willis’ admission to a relationship is already on the record .

McAfee’s decision comes more than a month after Mike Roman, one of the former president’s co-defendants who worked on Trump’s 2020 campaign, claimed in a court filing that Willis and Wade had been involved in an “inappropriate and clandestine personal relationship” which had financial repercussions. benefited them both.

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Roman’s lawyer, Ashleigh Merchant, claimed Willis allegedly broke the law by hiring Wade and then allowing him to pay for a “world vacation” with her that was unrelated to their work on the case . Roman’s filing, which offered no evidence to support the sensational claims, called for prosecutors to be disqualified and the charges against him to be dismissed.

In a court filing Feb. 2, Willis acknowledged having a personal relationship with Wade but denied it tainted the proceedings. Willis’ filing included a sworn affidavit from Wade, who said there was “no personal relationship” between him and Willis “before or at the time” he was named to the case in November 2021. The filing does not specify whether this personal relationship is ongoing.

McAfee also ruled against Willis and several others who sought to quash the testimony of several witnesses subpoenaed Thursday — including Terrence Bradley, Wade’s former law partner who Merchant said would testify that Wade lied in his affidavit and that he and Willis were actually dating before. upon his hiring.

Merchant told McAfee on Monday that most of the people she subpoenaed had personal knowledge of the Willis-Wade romance and that if they claimed otherwise, Bradley would testify that he overheard them discussing it directly.

One of the other prosecutors in the case, Anna Cross, retorted: “I will be shocked if Ms. Merchant is able to support that statement. I don’t believe that’s true.

Cross said none of the people subpoenaed to testify Thursday had any knowledge or facts that should be considered in the case.

“The defense doesn’t bring you facts,” she said. “The defense does not bring you the law. Defense brings you gossip. And the state cannot and the court must not tolerate this practice.

Cross said she will call her own witnesses Thursday to refute some of Merchant’s allegations, including that Wade and Willis “cohabited” at a South Fulton County rental property and that Wade only moved out when the elderly father de Willis had moved in. Cross said Willis’ father lived with her full time long before she and Wade met, and he will testify about that Thursday.

Other lawyers representing potential witnesses argued that Merchant was on a “fishing expedition” and actually had no reason to know what she was alleging.

The allegations against Wade and Willis were supported by a bitter divorce battle between Wade and his ex-wife. Bank records made public as part of Wade’s divorce proceedings show Wade purchased plane tickets for himself and Willis on two separate occasions: a trip to Aruba purchased in October 2022 on American Airlines and a second trip purchased in April 2023 in San Francisco on Delta Air Lines. .

Wade said in his affidavit that he and Willis “pretty much” split the travel expenses. One attachment included receipts for plane tickets for a trip to Miami in December 2022 that Willis purchased for herself and Wade. He insisted that Willis did not benefit from his salary as a special prosecutor.

“None of the funds paid to me as compensation for my role as special prosecutor were shared or provided to District Attorney Willis,” Wade said in the affidavit. “The District Attorney received no money or personal financial gain from my position as Special Prosecutor. »

At McAfee’s request, Merchant quickly responded, urging the judge to conduct an evidentiary hearing. She accused Willis and Wade of trying to “evade responsibility” in a matter where “freedom and lives are at stake.” She subpoenaed Willis, Wade and nearly a dozen associates — including people she said would dispute Wade’s claim that his relationship with Willis began after he was appointed to the case.

Roman’s motion to disqualify Willis and his office was later joined by Trump and several other co-defendants, including Shafer, Atlanta-area attorney Bob Cheeley, former Justice Department official Jeffrey Clark and Cathleen Latham, a 2020 Trump voter. All filed motions pressing McAfee to hold an evidentiary hearing.

The judge’s decision continues a scandal that threatens to derail the high-profile case against Trump, one of four criminal charges facing the former president and current candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.

Willis also faces other headwinds that threaten her control of the case and her position — to which she is up for re-election later this year. A Georgia Senate committee with subpoena power investigates allegations, and a Fulton County board member suggested he might also launch an investigation. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) referred the matter to the state Ethics Commission for potential sanctions and also requested that Georgia Governor Brian Kemp or Attorney General Chris Carr, both Republicans, launched a criminal investigation into Willis.

Jacobs reported from Washington.

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