ATLANTA (AP) — Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis on Sunday defended the qualifications of a special prosecutor she hired for her case against Donald Trump and others over efforts to overturn the 2020 election in Georgia after a defense lawyer accused Willis of professional impropriety.
In her first public remarks since the accusation was made in a court filing, Willis offered a vigorous defense of her leadership of the office and pushed back against critics. She was received warmly by the congregation of Big Bethel AME Church as she spoke at a service a day before the holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Willis thanked leaders of the historically Black church in Atlanta who “didn’t care what they said about me” and told her “the invite was still good” to speak.
“I hope for y’all this week I don’t look like what I’ve been through,” she said.
The allegations were in a motion filed last week by Ashleigh Merchant, who represents Michael Roman, a former Trump campaign staffer and onetime White House aide. The filing alleges that Willis was involved in an improper romantic relationship with Nathan Wade, the outside lawyer she hired, and questions Wade’s qualifications for the job.
The motion seeks to have the indictment dismissed and to disqualify Willis and Wade and their offices from further prosecuting the case.
At the church, Willis did not address the allegations of an improper relationship. She did not speak to reporters after the service.
Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee said during a hearing Friday that he is awaiting a response from the district attorney’s office and expects to set a hearing on the motion in February. Other defense attorneys in the case, including Trump attorney Steve Sadow, have said they want to look into the allegations before deciding whether they want to join the motion.
Willis said her father, who she said met and spent time with King, told her that he saw the civil rights leader at low moments, saddened because people were cruel and unsupportive. Her father told her that King “was not a perfect man, but he was a great man, willing to answer God’s call.”
At a low point in the past week, she said, she “penned a letter to my heavenly Father.” She framed much of her speech at the church as a conversation with God, describing herself over and over again as flawed, imperfect and hard-headed.
“You did not tell me as a woman of color, it would not matter what I did. My motive, my talent, my ability and my character would be constantly attacked,” she said.
She appeared to choke up briefly at times and talked about the loneliness and stress of her job, saying she has come to think it is “not normal if I don’t have two death threats a week” and that she’s regularly called racial slurs.
She revealed that on Christmas night, she got an emergency call saying police had surrounded her house because a man had called 911 saying he had shot a woman there. She said she experienced “pure, unimaginable fear,” believing her older daughter was dead in her home until the incident was revealed to be “a cruel hoax.”
Willis said she hired three special prosecutors for the election case: a white man, a white woman and a Black man. They are paid the same hourly rate and no one has questioned the qualifications of the two white lawyers, she said.
While never mentioning Wade by name, she called him a “superstar, a great friend and a great lawyer.” She cited his accomplishments and past professional experience and said, “I’m just asking, God, is it that some will never see a Black man as qualified, no matter his achievements?”
Merchant wrote in her motion that she can find no evidence that Wade, whose law firm website promotes his experience in civil litigation, including car accident and family law cases, has ever prosecuted a felony case. She questioned his qualifications to try this case.
Merchant’s filing offered no proof of the alleged relationship or trips that she said that Willis and Wade had taken together.
Merchant also alleges Willis did not get necessary approval from county leaders to hire Wade and that no special prosecutor’s oath had been filed for him.
Pete Skandalakis, a former district attorney who is executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council, said district attorneys do not have to seek permission before hiring a special prosecutor. McAfee previously said when another defendant raised the issue that it did not appear Wade was required to file the oath.