Fri, Feb 9, 2024 6:31 PM
By JEFF AMY, Associated Press
ATLANTA (AP) — The Republican leading a specially-appointed Georgia state Senate committee that's supposed to investigate whether Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis committed misconduct proclaimed repeatedly Friday during the panel's first meeting that he seeks just the facts, but the lead Democrat begrudgingly serving on the panel said she doubts the group can overcome its partisan origins.
“It's important that the public understand that this is not any type of witch hunt,” said state Sen. Bill Cowsert of Athens, the Republican picked to lead the panel. “This is a question of truth.”
The majority Republican Georgia Senate voted 30-19 last month to create a special investigative committee with subpoena power after allegations emerged that Willis had a conflict of interest in her prosecution of Donald Trump created by her “personal relationship” with a special prosecutor she hired for the case. Georgia legislative committees normally don't use subpoenas or require people to testify under oath.
A spokesperson for Willis didn't immediately respond Friday to a text message seeking comment.
Willis hired outside lawyer Nathan Wade to lead a team to investigate and ultimately prosecute Trump and 18 others accused of participating a wide-ranging scheme to illegally try to overturn the 2020 presidential election in Georgia. In a court filing earlier this month, Willis acknowledged a “personal relationship” with Wade.
That came in response to a motion filed by Trump co-defendant Michael Roman seeking to dismiss the case and to prevent Willis and Wade and their offices from continuing to prosecute the case. The filing said Willis paid Wade large sums and then improperly benefited personally from the prosecution of the case when Wade used his earnings to pay for vacations for the pair.
“You lose the confidence of the public in the fairness of our criminal justice system if they think prosecutors are engaging in prosecution so that their lovers can get rich and they can share in the benefits of that,” Cowsert told reporters after the hearing.
Trump has repeatedly referred to Wade as Willis' "lover” in attacks on the prosecution.
In a sworn statement submitted earlier this month with the filing that acknowledged the relationship between Wade and Willis, Wade said the “personal relationship” began in 2022, after he was hired as special prosecutor for the election case. The filing also argued that a hearing on motions to disqualify Willis from the case wasn't necessary.
But in a new filing Friday, Roman's attorney Ashleigh Merchant doubled down on her argument that she has evidence that a romantic relationship between Willis and Wade began earlier than they acknowledged. In arguing that an evidentiary hearing is necessary, the motion says Wade and Wills were “not forthright” in the motion filed earlier this month and “there is no reason to believe they are telling the truth now.”
The Senate panel doesn't have the power to sanction or remove Willis. It can only recommend changes in state spending or state laws. But it could have the ability to delve deeply into Willis' personal and professional life and air any dirty laundry widely. Lawyers for Roman and others are seeking to do the same in a court hearing next week, but the district attorney's office has said it will ask Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee to toss the subpoenas.
Cowsert said he would not be surprised if someone challenged the Senate panel's subpoena power, but expressed confidence it would be upheld.
The three Democrats on the nine-member panel voted to approve rules that will let the committee hire outside lawyers, researchers and investigators and let it take depositions privately, and could allow for closed hearings. Cowsert told reporters he expected the inquiry to take “many months,” and said the pace of work might not pick up until after lawmakers conclude their regular session at the end of March.
Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler, a Democrat from Stone Mountain, said during the meeting that “I can't say I'm looking forward to this" but said she wanted the committee to be productive and commended Cowsert for drawing up fair rules. She told reporters that she doubts partisan differences can be overcome.
“I think that a political witch hunt or show trial would damage Georgians' faith in both our political and legal system," Butler said during the meeting. "Our duty as public servants is to strengthen, not weaken, that faith.”
Cowsert said “whistleblowers inside the Fulton County DA's office” have contacted senators to allege that federal and state funds have been misused.
“We have had people come forward that have asked to speak with us with relevant information,” Cowsert told reporters after the meeting. “I don’t know that information yet. I’ve not interviewed them.”
That discussion echoes claims made by U.S. House Republicans, who last week subpoenaed documents from Willis relating to a former employee's claims that she was fired after discovering misused federal gang prevention grant funds.
Cowsert repeatedly said the committee wouldn’t “interfere with any ongoing criminal prosecution.” He also said the committee would try to stay out of the way of a new prosecutorial oversight commission that Georgia lawmakers are trying to set up. Gov. Brian Kemp has said he prefers that commission, rather than the Senate, to investigate claims against Willis.
The state Senate is led by Republican Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, who describes himself as a “Trump guy,” and includes other Republican lawmakers who also publicly backed Trump’s efforts to overturn Georgia’s 2020 election results. Willis was barred from prosecuting Jones by a judge after she hosted a fundraiser for a Democratic opponent. The panel also begins its work in a year when all of Georgia's legislative seats will be up for election.