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Sunday, March 17, 2024

How a sleuth defense attorney and a disgruntled law partner damaged the Trump Georgia case - The Washington Post

How a sleuth defense attorney and a disgruntled law partner damaged the Trump Georgia case

"In early September, a lawyer for one of former president Donald Trump’s co-defendants in the Georgia election interference case scheduled a call with the other defense attorneys to share what he thought could be a game-changing allegation. 

Nathan Wade, the lead prosecutor on the case, did not seem qualified for a job that was paying him hundreds of thousands of dollars, Manny Arora told his colleagues. And he’d heard that Wade was in a romantic relationship with Fulton County District Attorney Fani T. Willis (D), potential grounds for Willis’s disqualification from the case.

The reaction was muted. Some of the lawyers didn’t even participate in the call. It was just three weeks after their clients had been indicted, and they were busy preparing their cases.

“Truthfully, I thought it was too salacious, and I thought it would irritate the judge,” said one defense lawyer, who like several other individuals spoke to The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly about the case. “Everybody had just been arraigned. We were working on discovery and getting our defense together.”

Arora, who represented lawyer Kenneth Chesebro, told the group that he didn’t have the bandwidth to investigate the romance claims, he later recounted to The Post.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani T. Willis arrives at a news conference with prosecutor Nathan Wade on Aug. 14. (Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters)

But one lawyer on the call was interested. Ashleigh Merchant, who represents former Trump campaign aide Mike Roman, filed open-records requests for Wade’s contracts and billing invoices. She obtained a trove of financial records from his pending divorce case. And crucially, she leaned on a long-standing friendship with Wade’s former law partner, who claimed knowledge of all of it in hundreds of now-public text messages.

That effort culminated in a blockbuster pleading that Merchant filed in January accusing Willis of improperly hiring Wade while they were dating and then profiting by allowing him to take her on lavish vacations. The unusual pleading, which cited unnamed individuals and provided no evidence, called for Willis’s disqualification from the case and for the charges to be dismissed. In the weeks that followed, Merchant frantically rushed to try to find proof for her claims.

Ultimately, the gambit fell short when Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfeeruled Friday that Merchant and other defense attorneys had failed to prove Willis and Wade were in a relationship when she appointed him or other disqualifying conduct. But the ruling sharply criticized Willis and Wade, and demanded that one of them step away from the case.

Attorney Scott Grubman speaks with attorney Manny Arora during a hearing where their client, Kenneth Chesebro, accepts a plea deal in Fulton County, Ga., on Oct. 20. (Alyssa Pointer/Pool/Getty Images/AP)

And damage was done along the way. The matter dragged on for more than two months, delaying proceedings and making it less likely that the complicated conspiracy case will go to trial before the presidential election. It deeply embarrassed Willis and Wade, who were forced to testify about their relationship and answer profoundly personal questions from defense attorneys whose clients they had charged, all of which undermined public credibility of their prosecution of Trump and his allies. Wade resigned from the case a few hours after McAfee’s order dropped.

The accusations aren’t going away, as some of the defendants are expecting to appeal the decision — and the judge has suggested they can revisit the issue closer to a trial date. State lawmakers are investigating, and the headlines are unlikely to slow down.

Trump, meanwhile, has gleefully cheered on the drama and used it to undermine the legitimacy of the charges against him not only in Georgia, but in all four criminal cases against him, including two federal cases brought by special counsel Jack Smith.

“The Fani Willis lover, Mr. Nathan Wade Esq., has just resigned in disgrace,” Trump posted on his social media platform, Truth Social.

“This is the equivalent of Deranged Jack Smith getting ‘canned,’ BIG STUFF, something which should happen in the not too distant future!!!”

Special prosecutor Nathan Wade at the Fulton County courthouse last month. (Mike Stewart/Pool/AP)

Two days after Trump and his allies were charged in connection with their attempt to overthrow the 2020 presidential election in Georgia, Willis asked the judge to set a March trial date. Soon after, Wade filed a notice of appearance as the case’s lead prosecutor.

Many of the defense attorneys had never heard of him — and they were increasingly convinced the general practitioner from the Atlanta suburbs, whose webpage advertises criminal defense, personal injury and family law, wasn’t qualified for the job. Arora, Chesebro’s lawyer, wanted to know how much Fulton County was paying Wade.

“We did open-records requests on all of it,” he told The Post. “I was just curious to see if all the I’s had been dotted and the T’s crossed.”

Arora discovered that Wade had never filed a signed oath of office after Willis hired him in November 2021, which Arora believed was a requirement under Georgia law. He began preparing a motion to dismiss the charges.

Wade sits during a hearing on the Georgia election interference case this month. (Alex Slitz/Pool/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Around the same time, defendant David Shafer, the former state GOP chairman and one of three Trump electors charged in the case, received a brochure in the mail from Wade & Campbell, Wade’s law firm. The brochure was generated automatically following Shafer’s indictment, but his lawyer thought it was wildly inappropriate for a private firm to solicit a client that one of its partners was prosecuting, even in error. That lawyer, Craig Gillen, filed a motion of his own.

McAfee — 34 years old and in his first year on the bench — quickly ruled against Shafer on Sept. 14 with what would become his familiarly sharp tone.

“Nothing indicates that Special Prosecutor Wade knowingly sent the mailer or specifically targeted the Defendants,” the judge wrote. “ … The Court feels comfortable inferring a lack of knowledge without the need for a protracted evidentiary hearing and briefing schedule.”

McAfee’s ruling against Chesebro on the oath of office several weeks later was even tougher, calling Arora’s filing a “parrot of a motion” and “blithely” written.

The rest of the defense team took note. Most of them remained wary of pursuing the potential impropriety of a romance between Willis and Wade. Now, they had reason to suspect McAfee would be skeptical, too, and they didn’t want to anger him with frivolous filings.

A defense attorney who loves digging

Merchant, a well-known Atlanta-area criminal defense attorney, took pride in being a vigorous investigator, a necessary skill when she was a public defender and had no budget. She quickly picked up where Arora had left off, firing off open-records requests seeking Wade’s contract as she sought to understand how he came to be appointed to the job.

Merchant and her husband and law partner, John, had been hired to represent Roman, a former campaign aide who was charged in part for his role in assembling presidential electors to sign documents falsely claiming Trump had won the election in Georgia. Roman spent much of his career as a Republican opposition researcher, digging up dirt on political rivals.

Unlike the other defense attorneys, Merchant had known Wade for years, professionally and socially. He was active in the legal and political scene in Cobb County, north of Atlanta, where Merchant lives and works. A former municipal judge, Wade had unsuccessfully runfor elected judge positions over the years. Merchant had endorsed his 2016 campaign against a Cobb County Superior Court judge, praising his “robust legal background.”

But Merchant didn’t understand how Wade had come to lead what could be the biggest criminal case in Georgia history. A former Fulton County public defender, Merchant was well-acquainted with Willis and many other prosecutors in her office because she’d tried cases against them for years. She wasn’t sure Wade had ever prosecuted a felony case, much less a complicated, multi-defendant proceeding brought under the state’s racketeering statute, as this one was.

A glance at a Fulton County budget website with some basic numbers showed that Wade had already been paid nearly $550,000. His law partners, Christopher Campbell and Terrence Bradley, who were also under contract with the office, had been paid close to $200,000 combined. She filed a request seeking those billing statements.

Wade’s earnings seemed excessive to Merchant, who claimed in recent public testimony that most lawyers appointed to handle public cases are paid far less — closer to $60 an hour, in her experience — or work on a pro-bono basis. Prosecutors later argued that Wade’s $250 an hour billing rate was below market and less than he’d charged on other cases.

By then, chatter about Wade’s legal credentials and earnings was spreading among local attorneys unaffiliated with the case.

“She’s spent almost a million taxpayer dollars on RICO advice from Nathan Wade, a dude who has never tried a RICO case,” Andrew Fleischmann, an Atlanta criminal defense attorney, posted on X on Sept. 2.

When someone responded asking if they should be familiar with Wade, Fleishmann replied: “Not really.”

On Sept. 11, the conservative Washington Examiner published a story about how much money the district attorney’s office had paid Wade and his two law partners, describing the arrangement as “unorthodox.”

“Willis chose Wade over career prosecutors who work on salaries,” it read, quoting an Atlanta attorney who described it as a “cash cow.”

The article served to jump-start Merchant’s research project by prompting a phone call from Bradley, an old friend who was concerned by the attention and wondered if he needed a lawyer.

Bradley told Merchant that Willis had called him to say various people were looking into the contracts.

“He called me because he was worried about it. And so we had a conversation, and he actually asked me, ‘Do I need a lawyer?’ … ‘What’s going on? What are you investigating?’” Merchant later recalled.

Willis later testified that she could “not recall” texting or talking on the phone with Bradley but said she could have. She was not specifically asked about the alleged September call.

Merchant said she told Bradley that she couldn’t represent him because she was representing Roman. He asked if her husband was available. “That’s a conflict, too,” Merchant said she told Bradley.

But she could still talk to him — and talk they did.

Terrence Bradley, special prosecutor Wade’s former law partner, looks at documents as he testifies in court on Feb. 27 in Atlanta. (Brynn Anderson/Pool/AP)

A few days later, Merchant ran into Bradley at the Cobb County courthouse. They joined two other attorneys in a conference room as they waited for plea hearings to begin in their respective cases.

Bradley told the group everything he knew about Willis and Wade, Merchant recalled.

The two had met at a judicial conference in October 2019 and quickly struck up a romantic relationship, Merchant says Bradley told the group — well before she was elected district attorney.

“I had a notepad,” Merchant said, “and I took notes on all the things to ask for open records.”

Merchant said she did not know at the time that Bradley was no longer Wade’s law partner. She also did not know that Bradley had served as Wade’s divorce attorney — or that he left the firm after being accused of sexually assaulting an employee and a client, allegations he denies.

Merchant said she believed Bradley was angry about how Wade had treated his estranged wife.

Sept. 18, 2023

Ashleigh Merchant

Any idea who I could get an 

affidavit from on the affair?

Terrence Bradley one would freely burn that bridge

From that point, Merchant grew to rely heavily on Bradley’s recollections to build her case. On Sept. 14, she texted Bradley with the first of more than 300 text messages between mid-September and early February as she sought to confirm the details Bradley had shared. A copy of the texts, obtained by The Post, were introduced as evidence in the disqualification proceedings.

In late September, prosecutors offered a plea deal to Roman, who was charged with seven counts including racketeering. He could plead guilty to a single misdemeanor charge and a $5,000 fine in exchange for his cooperation, Merchant said.

Soon four other defendants took plea deals in rapid succession. But Roman declined. Behind the scenes, his lawyer was working to confirm Bradley’s claims, relentlessly pumping him for more leads to chase. She was running out of time. If Merchant was going to raise these accusations, she had to do so before Jan. 8, the motions deadline that McAfee had set.

Dec. 13, 2023

Ashleigh Merchant

I got some more confirmation about fani 

and Nathan 

I still can't get anyone to go on record 

But I also got the evidence that fani did 

not and does not have county approval 

to pay nathan 

She violated county policy left and right

Three weeks later, on Jan. 5, Merchant texted Bradley again, indicating she had gotten “stuff from the divorce lawyer. … I got a ton of stuff.” It was an apparent reference to the lawyer for Wade’s estranged wife, Joycelyn Wade, who later denied claims from Willis and others that she coordinated or colluded with Merchant.

Jan. 5, 2024

Ashleigh Merchant

I got stuff from the divorce lawyer

I got a ton of stuff

Terrence Bradley

Like what else

When will it drop

Monday is my filing deadline 

You won't be involved at all 

He finally turned over his financial docs 

which show he paid for fanis delta flight 

- it has her name on it - to California 

Napa vacation 

And he paid for a Royal Caribbean 

cruise for them

Merchant was building out her motion to disqualify Willis. She told Bradley that she now had records showing Wade paid for trips with Willis, including a Royal Caribbean cruise in November 2022 and a trip to Napa Valley in April 2023.

“You won’t be involved at all,” Merchant wrote. The next day, Bradley asked to see a “rough draft” of the motion.

Jan. 6, 2024

Ashleigh Merchant

To your knowledge has nathan 

ever prosecuted a felony? 

I can't find a single one

Terrence Bradley

Never in his life has he 

ever prosecuted a felony

That's what I found too

It's bad.

Send .e a rough draft



Promise not to share it? 

I don't want it leaked before I file it

I protected you completely btw

I promise

Within an hour, Bradley responded by asking Merchant to include how much he had been paid for his work for Willis’s office. He was worried that the omission could suggest he was a source. Merchant replied she had taken out his name.

“Add it back,” Bradley replied.

She asked him what he thought of the overall motion, which accused Willis and Wade of being in an “ongoing personal relationship” even while Wade was married and before Willis hired him. It described how the two were “believed to have cohabited in some form or fashion at a location owned by neither of them.”

It accused Willis of improperly benefiting financially from the hire, claiming that Wade had financed lavish vacations. And it said she had misused county funds by paying Wade as much as she had.

He replied: “Looks good.”

What Bradley never provided in all those text messages was actual evidence that the relationship had begun before Willis hired Wade. And Merchant had no other witnesses lined up yet, despite her plural description of “sources” in her motion.

The two mused that day about how Willis and Wade would react to the filing.

Bradley wrote: “They’re going to deny it.”

Merchant responded, “OMG! There have to be so many witnesses. If they deny it, they will become public liars. So many folks have seen them. Like most of the office staff!”

Jan. 8, 2024

Ashleigh Merchant

I am nervous 

This is huge

Terrence Bradley

You are huge

You will be fine

You are one of the best lawyers I know

Go be great

Bradley made suggestions on whom Merchant should subpoena: Willis’s security detail, members of her executive staff, her administrative assistant and members of the election case prosecution team.

“Subpoena them all,” he wrote.

On Jan. 8, hours before she would file the motion, Merchant texted Bradley.

She filed the motion that Monday afternoon. And all hell broke loose.

Willis speaks during a service at the Big Bethel AME Church on Jan. 14 in Atlanta. (Miguel Martinez/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP)

Waiting for Willis to respond

As the sensational accusations dominated local and national media for days, Willis and Wade kept quiet. Months earlier, when Trump had falsely accused Willis of having “an affair” with a “gang member,” she sent an email to staff strongly denying it and the message quickly leaked. This time, Willis would respond “appropriately in court filings,” her spokesman said.

As the days passed without a denial, even those close to Willis who initially assumed the accusations were false suddenly wondered if they could be true. The district attorney had campaigned on a platform of professional integrity and had publicly condemned anyone who would sleep with a subordinate.

One person thought Merchant’s filing was fabulous: Trump.

Through an aide, Trump relayed to his lawyer, Sadow, that he wanted him to call Merchant to congratulate her, according to two people familiar with the conversations. Sadow did.

But Sadow was still skeptical of the motion, which had not offered evidence of its central claims, so he didn’t immediately join it.

Six days after the bombshell had dropped, Willis finally broke her silence in a widely viewed speech before a historic Black church in Atlanta, where she accused her critics of playing “the race card” by questioning her right to appoint Wade, the only Black lawyer among the three special prosecutors she had hired.

Willis described herself as flawed and lonely — words quickly interpreted to mean the central allegation of a romance was true.

Without naming Wade, Willis strongly defended him, describing him as a lawyer of “impeccable credentials” with decades of experience.

The speech did not settle anything.

Merchant, meanwhile, was still on the hunt for corroboration. She pressed Bradley for any details about an Atlanta-area home and supposed rendezvous point for Willis and Wade. Bradley had told her the house was linked to “a girlfriend” of Willis’s, “like a bestie,” who had worked for the district attorney’s office. But Merchant still did not have a name as she sought to back up her allegations.

On Jan. 14, the same day as the church speech, Merchant texted Bradley a name.

Jan. 14, 2024

Ashleigh Merchant

Robin Bryant?

East point connection?

Terrence Bradley

Send me a pic

[Image attached]

robin bryant yeartie - Google Search

Yes that's her...that's the 

east point apartment person

She is key 

Thank you 

She also knows all about the 

media company payments

Merchant also chased random leads. She asked Bradley if he knew the names of Willis’s college-age daughters, recounting an anonymous tip that Willis was renting a house for her and Wade in one of their names.

The shocking allegations had ground the election case to a halt — and created a media circus. Wade was photographed outside his private law office carrying a gun. He and other prosecutors took back hallways at the courthouse to avoid reporters.

On. Jan. 19, an attorney for Joycelyn Wade filed a pleading in the divorce case with credit card statements potentially corroborating the allegation that Wade had paid for Willis’s travel. The statements showed that he had purchased airline and cruise tickets for himself and Willis on two occasions. Willis still declined to comment.

On Jan. 22, local and national news outlets descended on a hearing over the Wade divorce case at the Cobb County Courthouse. The judge agreed to Merchant’s request to unseal records in the case. She had suggested they would prove her allegations, but they did not.

Eight days later, Nathan Wade temporarily settled the bitter divorce case with his wife, avoiding having to testify.

But the crisis was not over. By now, Sadow, Trump’s lawyer, and several others had joined the motion to disqualify Willis — prompted in part what they claimed was Willis’s improper speech at the church, which they said would taint any future jury pool.

On Jan. 31, Merchant issued more than a dozen subpoenas including to Willis, Wade, Bradley, and several prosecutors and key members of Willis’s staff she wanted to question in an evidentiary hearing. Many were people Bradley had suggested.

Willis asked McAfee to cancel the evidentiary hearing. He didn’t. It was set for Feb. 15.

In a response, Merchant suggested Willis and Wade had lied. She said Wade and Willis “began more than just a friendship” when they met at the 2019 conference. She also texted Bradley that she would be sending him a subpoena for the hearing, writing that she hoped not to use it but that “it would look fishy” if she didn’t.

“I’m okay with it,” Bradley replied.

Willis testifies during a hearing on the Georgia election interference case on Feb. 15 in Atlanta. (Alyssa Pointer/Pool/Reuters/AP)

In the meantime, Bradley appeared to be growing increasingly nervous that he would be publicly identified as Merchant’s source.

He began replying less and less to Merchant’s texts.

On Feb. 3, he texted Merchant that he’d gotten a voice mail from Gabe Banks, a former prosecutor Willis had unsuccessfully asked to lead the case. Bradley told Merchant that Banks thought he was Merchant’s source.

She later testified to a Georgia Senate committee that Bradley was “upset” by the message.

“They were trying to figure out if it was him, and they were trying to silence him,” Merchant claimed.

The next day, Merchant said Bradley told her that he had gotten a call from his best friend, also an Atlanta lawyer, who said Wade had asked him to relay a message.

“Remind him of his privilege,” Wade allegedly said, referring to Bradley’s one-time role as his divorce lawyer.

A few days after that, Bradley stopped communicating with Merchant altogether. And Merchant finally outed her source in a motion filed Feb. 9, saying Bradley would “refute” claims by Willis and Wade that their romantic relationship began after he was named to the election case.

The filing prompted McAfee to refer to Bradley as Merchant’s “star witness.”

But on the witness stand, he was anything but. Called as the first witness on that Thursday morning, Bradley’s appearance was interrupted when Wade’s personal attorney asserted privilege.

It was actually Robin Bryant-Yeartie, Willis’s former colleague and estranged friend, who delivered what some defense attorneys initially thought would be the nail in the coffin for Willis’s attempts to maintain the case. Appearing on a large TV screen from her home, Bryant-Yeartie said there was “no doubt” in her mind that Willis and Wade were involved in a romantic relationship beginning in late 2019. She testified that she had talked to Willis about Wade and had personally seen them “hugging, kissing” before Nov. 1, 2021 — the date Wade joined the Trump case.

Seated in the gallery, a defense attorney turned to a colleague and silently pumped his first in celebration.

That same day, Wade and Willis also took the stand, as defense lawyer after defense lawyer questioned each of them about their sex lives and personal finances. Wade said Willis had repaid him for the travel in cash, a statement that prompted Shafer, sitting at the defense table, to chortle aloud. “Mr. Shafer, you’ll step out if you do that again,” McAfee interjected.

For her turn, Willis accused Merchant of being “dishonest” and of making “highly offensive” claims about her and Wade. At one point, she waved copies of Roman’s filings in the case, describing them as full of “lies, lies, lies.”

“You’ve been intrusive into people’s personal lives,” Willis told Merchant. “You’re confused. You think I’m on trial. These people are on trial for trying to steal an election in 2020. I’m not on trial. No matter how hard you try to put me on trial.”

It became so heated that McAfee called a brief recess. He would later describe Willis’s testimony that day as “unprofessional.”

When Bradley returned to the witness stand Friday, he initially denied having communicated with Merchant about Wade and Willis, suggesting he had spoken to her through a third party. When presented with a copy of the texts, he acknowledged he had sent the messages and then tried to claim privilege to avoid answering questions.

More than a week later, Bradley was forced to return to the stand a third time after McAfee ruled that privilege didn’t prevent it. The defense table was abuzz with anticipation. But Bradley did not deliver what they had been hoping for. He said he had no “personal” knowledge of when the relationship between Wade and Willis began. And he said much of what he shared with Merchant was nothing more than speculation.

It was the undoing of Merchant’s months-long quest.

Bradley’s text messages never established “the basis for which he claimed such sweeping knowledge” of Wade’s private life, McAfee wrote Friday in his order denying Merchant’s motion.

The Lewis R. Slaton Courthouse in Atlanta. (Elijah Nouvelage for The Washington Post)

“The Court finds itself unable to place any stock in the testimony of [Terrence] Bradley,” McAfee wrote. “His inconsistencies, demeanor, and generally non-responsive answers left far too brittle a foundation upon which to build any conclusions.”

McAfee didn’t stop there. He harshly criticized Willis and Wade, calling the church speech “legally improper” and Wade’s explanation for why he did not admit the relationship in his divorce proceedings “patently unpersuasive.” He characterized the claim of cash payments “not so incredible as to be inherently unbelievable” — yet described an “odor of mendacity” over the whole affair.

A few hours later, Wade offered a letter of resignation to “the Honorable Fani T. Willis.” She accepted it.

Merchant issued a statement saying McAfee should have disqualified Willis’s office. But she also called the opinion “a vindication that everything put forth by the defense was true, accurate and relevant to the issues surrounding our client’s right to a fair trial.”

Bailey reported from Atlanta."

How a sleuth defense attorney and a disgruntled law partner damaged the Trump Georgia case - The Washington Post

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