FaniGate And The American Way Of Scandal

By Charles Lipson
February 06, 2024




To qualify as a first-rate American political scandal, the escapade should include three juicy elements: sex, money, and the abuse of power.

Fani Willis and Nathan Wade hit the trifecta.

Willis is the District Attorney for Fulton County (Atlanta), Georgia. Her position and use of it against Donald Trump is the power dimension of the story. Willis brought a major criminal case against Trump and multiple associates for attempting to meddle with the state’s vote count in 2020 and the determination of its electors. That case put Willis in the national spotlight, where she is wilting.

The money dimension is intertwined with Willis’ power. She used her wide-ranging authority to hire her dear, dear friend and former mentor, Nathan Wade, to prosecute the case. Her office is paying him generously with taxpayer money.

Willis’ belated admission that she and Wade have a “personal relationship” (wink, wink, nod, nod) raises two insurmountable problems for the prosecutor. The first is that Willis not only hired her friend, but he then seems to have returned the favor by booking lavish vacations for the two of them. (Willis claims, somewhat dubiously, that she split the costs with him.) The second problem is that Willis chose a prosecutor who has zero experience handling complex criminal cases like the one against Trump and his co-defendants. Appointing Wade introduced obvious questions about cronyism.

Most of Nathan Wade’s legal experience has come not as a criminal lawyer but as a municipal judge dealing with speeding tickets and fender benders. Fani Willis could have picked a more experienced criminal attorney by throwing a dart at the membership list of the Georgia State Bar Association.

Instead of throwing that dart, Willis put her “friend” in charge of a complicated, high-profile RICO case (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) that includes the former president of the United States. It’s a wonderful opportunity for Wade to learn on the job – and get paid as he learns.

And he’s been paid very handsomely. Atlanta’s taxpayers have forked over more than $650,000 to his law firm. That sum dwarfs the DA’s payments to the two other experts she hired, one of them a RICO expert. Together, they have received less than $100,000.

The third leg of any first-rate American scandal is S-E-X. Once again, Fani Willis does not disappoint. After she hired her bosom buddy, Nathan, they took an ocean cruise and flew together to the West Coast, all while Wade was still married.

Wade and Willis have been asked repeatedly if they have an amorous association. Until a few days ago, they refused to say anything. Finally, Willis grudgingly admitted the obvious. Well, sort of. She said she and Wade had a “personal relationship,” but she also filed a document with the Georgia Superior Court saying the “salacious” allegations about her and Willis were without “merit.” That’s a classic “non-denial denial.” The old Nixon campaign crowd would be proud.

We learned about the salacious allegations because of Nathan Wade’s nasty divorce from his wife of 26 years. Joycelyn and Nathan Wade have been separated, but she is none too happy with his dalliance, her public humiliation, and the alleged diversion of marital income to pay for Nathan’s trips. She claimed her estranged husband left her nearly penniless while he was spending lavishly and hiding their joint income. To support her claims, Mrs. Wade has publicly disclosed credit card statements that include line items for her husband’s pleasure jaunts with the DA. Neither Wade nor Willis has denied those trips together.

Joycelyn’s exposure of her husband and his paramour was assisted by one of Trump’s RICO co-defendants, Mike Roman, and his attorney, Ashleigh Merchant. Their aims are obvious. They want to expose the prosecution as corrupt, remove Willis and her office from the case, delay the trial, and either get the case thrown out or moved to a friendlier venue than Atlanta. (Wade has some additional troubles because of his bills to Willis’ office. Roman’s attorney claims Wade billed the DA for 24 hours work on a single day in November 2021. He also seems to have begun his work and billing before he was authorized to do so.)

The risks to Willis and Wade mounted when the judge in the divorce case scheduled a session to question them about their relationship, their joint expenditures, and Nathan’s income. To avoid that unpleasantness, Wade reached a preliminary, last-minute settlement with his wife.

The escape from hard questions may only be temporary, however. The judge in the RICO case has set a hearing for Feb. 15 to deal with two related issues. Should Wade, Willis, and Willis’ law firm be thrown off the case for misconduct (or its appearance)? Does their behavior warrant dismissing the case entirely? Roman’s attorney has subpoenaed Wade, Willis, and multiple members of the DA’s office to testify in that hearing.

Although the hearing was prompted by Roman’s attorney, the political controversy revolves around his co-defendant, Donald Trump. The Georgia case poses four problems for the former president. The first is its possible impact on voters in November. Trump is being charged with a grave crime against a constitutional republic: trying to overturn a democratic election. Second, the case forces Trump to devote time and money to defending himself in court when he needs to be devoting it to campaigning. Third, if the RICO case continues, as seems likely, Trump could be incriminated by his co-defendants, some of whom have already pled guilty. They have incentives to lessen their sentences by providing information against Trump, if they have any.

Finally, because the case is being prosecuted in state court, a conviction cannot be erased by a presidential pardon, should Trump retake the White House. And Fani Willis has all but said that a conviction would mean prison time for the former president. Even the Georgia governor, a Republican, cannot help. Only a state board has the power to pardon, and then only after a felon has been convicted and served five years. Preemptive pardons are not allowed. (The law was enacted in the 1930s, when the governor was caught in a cash-for-pardons scheme.) As you can imagine, the state legislature is now under enormous pressure to change that law.

Meanwhile, the legislature is actively pursuing Fani Willis. The state Senate has reestablished a committee to review her conduct, while the state House is considering impeachment hearings. The state bar could also undertake an investigation.

Willis is also vulnerable to felony charges for public corruption, thanks to her hiring Wade and traveling on vacation with him. Willis says she and Wade each paid for themselves. But even if that’s true, Wade only had the money to afford those trips because Willis had showered him with taxpayer funds. She needs to explain why she hired an attorney with no RICO experience to try the most important case ever brought by a Fulton County District Attorney.

Removing Wade and Willis from the case wouldn’t necessarily end it, but it would certainly delay a trial for months as a new prosecutorial team mastered its brief. Since the new team would likely come from a different county, the case would be moved outside the Atlanta area.

What could kill the case entirely are two other misadventures by Willis and her office.

The first  was Willis’ recent rousing speech to black churchgoers. Most of it was predictable and self-serving. The DA said she had done nothing wrong, recited deceptive dollar amounts regarding her payments to outside attorneys, and avoided any mention of her relationship with Nathan Wade. What she did say, however, raises serious difficulties for a fair trial. The attacks on her and Wade, she clearly implied, were based entirely on their race. She pointed out that Wade was the only black among the three outside lawyers she hired. Yet, astoundingly, this black man was the only one being attacked. What other explanation could there be besides racism? She explicitly denied she was “playing the race card” even as she did so, making an impassioned speech all about the racial victimhood that she, Nathan Wade, and her audience experienced.

That speech, like so much of Fani Willis’ behavior, was a Mount Everest of bad judgment. First of all, it defied common sense. Nathan Wade was being scrutinized because he was paid far more than the other attorneys, has no expertise in the relevant legal field, and is apparently sleeping with the woman who hired him. It also opened the door for Trump and his co-defendants to assert that inflammatory racial rhetoric had poisoned the jury pool locally, and perhaps statewide. Defense attorneys could also charge Willis with professional misconduct and petition the courts to transfer the case out of Atlanta on that basis alone. Virtually any other Georgia jurisdiction would be more favorable to Trump and his allies.

The second blunder is equally troubling. Nathan Wade traveled to Washington and billed Willis’ office for eight hours of meetings at the White House. For a local prosecutor to meet privately with Biden aides while prosecuting Biden’s principal political opponent is inexcusable. It certainly gives the appearance of injecting partisan political calculations into what should be unbiased, nonpartisan justice. The American people need to know exactly who attended those meetings, what was said, and whether there were other communications. All that information should be disclosed fully, under oath.

The Biden White House and Fani Willis have a lot at stake here. They have always claimed their prosecutions were entirely free of political taint. It is mere chance, they say, that it took three years to bring the various cases against Trump and that they are culminating as the election approaches. The Department of Justice has repeatedly said the same thing about the other cases against Trump.

That’s the only thing they could say. Acknowledging any political interference would:

  • Fatally undermine the cases against Trump.
  • Boost the former president politically.
  • Damage an already-beleaguered Biden administration.
  • Erode faith in the Department of Justice.
  • Violate our nation’s constitutional protections against judicial bias and political prosecutions.

The public is right to be skeptical of their denials. To resolve those doubts, Nathan Wade should testify, under oath, about his meetings at the Biden White House. Did he or Fani Willis hold any other discussions with the White House or Department of Justice, perhaps by phone or email?

You can bet Wade and Willis won’t testify voluntarily. They will claim it would improperly interfere with their prosecution. The Biden administration will undoubtedly resist any effort to pry into their communications.

A cover-up would be inexcusable, whether it is by Willis or the White House. The issue here is fundamental for the unbiased, apolitical administration of justice and for public confidence in that system.

As these questions pile up and the stench ripens, we can see three familiar dimensions of a good, old-fashioned American political scandal: sex, money, and the abuse of power, all exploding during an election year. Get out your popcorn and prepare to wallow in FaniGate.

This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.

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