Allegations of liars, cheaters and conflicts of interest: Takeaways from the Fani Willis hearing

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Liars. Conniving cheaters. "Lovestruck teenagers." Playing the race card to cover up their misdeeds and milk the lucrative “gravy train” of the Donald Trump election fraud case in Georgia.

Those were only some of the accusations that defense lawyers made Friday against Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis and the top prosecutor she had an affair with, in an effort to have Willis disqualified from overseeing the election fraud case against the former president and 14 other defendants.

“This is a case study in what happens when you operate under a conflict of interest. It’s put an irreparable stain on the case,” said Harry MacDougald, the attorney representing former Trump Justice Department official Jeffrey Clark.

“Think of the message that would be sent if they were not disqualified," MacDougald told the judge who must decide whether to bounce Willis from the case − and the nationally televised audience that was watching.

More: 'Clear-cut lies': Fiery hearing over Fani Willis affair in Trump election case

On Willis' behalf, Chief Deputy District Attorney Adam Abbate said the lawyers for Trump and the other defendants failed to prove any of the allegations they have been making since Jan. 8, when the motion to disqualify was filed.

In particular, Abbate said claims that Willis financially benefitted from hiring private lawyer Nathan Wade to lead the case were unfounded.

“The defendants have failed to raise any issue legally or factually to satisfy the legal standard for disqualification,” Abbate said in urging Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee to reject the motion to disqualify outright.

The burden of proof is “very, very high” in order to disqualify an elected district attorney like Willis, Abbate said. "That burden, that actual conflict (of interest) has not been shown.”

A trial for trying to overturn an election

Trump and his associates are charged with having "unlawfully conspired" to reverse his 2020 defeat in Georgia as part of a "criminal enterprise." Trump denies the allegations.

Four of his co-defendants have pleaded guilty. If the motion to disqualify is granted by McAfee, it would delay and possibly derail the trial, making it very unlikely to occur before the November election.

Do appearances matter?

McAfee gave the defense lawyers 90 minutes of final arguments in which to make their case for disqualification before he issues a formal ruling in the next two weeks.

The defense lawyers, including Trump attorney Steven Sadow, also said the presiding judge, Scott McAfee, only needs to determine that Willis and Wade created the “appearance” of a conflict of interest to be disqualified. And they said the two demonstrably met that standard by engaging in a physical relationship and by Wade using some of the more than $650,000 he’s been paid for the case on vacations he took with Willis.

The defense also alleges that the affair began before Willis hired Wade for the case. Wade and Willis have testified that their relationship didn't turn romantic until months after she hired him for the Trump case on Nov. 1, 2021 and that Willis repaid Wade in cash for the travel.

Another defense attorney, Craig Gillen, alleged Willis and Wade lied in court and in sworn affidavits about when the romance began − because they knew it was wrong.

“Prosecutors don’t act like this. Lawyers don’t act like this. These people need to go,” said Gillen, who also complained that six days after being accused of an affair with Wade, Willis delivered a Jan. 14 church sermon at Big Bethel A.M.E. Church in Atlanta suggesting that she and Wade were being singled out because they were Black.

“She chose to play the race card and the God card,” Gillen said.

March, 1, 2024; Atlanta, GA, USA; Fulton County Superior Judge Scott McAfee presides in court, Friday, March, 1, 2024, in Atlanta. The hearing is to determine whether Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis should be removed from the case because of a relationship with Nathan Wade, special prosecutor she hired in the election interference case against former President Donald Trump. Mandatory Credit: Alex Slitz/Pool via USA TODAY NETWORK

'Ridiculous' and 'absurd' allegations

Willis herself waited until after the defense rested to enter the courtroom and sit at the prosecutors’ table as Abbate argued for why the judge should reject the disqualification motion. (In dramatic court testimony last month, and a sworn affidavit, Willis said it is the defense lawyers who are the liars, falsely smearing her and Wade.)

Abbate maintained the defense lawyers needed to prove an actual conflict of interest − as opposed to the mere appearance of one − for Willis to be disqualified. And they didn’t clear that higher bar, he said.

Abbate spent much of his time attacking a key element of the motion to disqualify, which was that Willis hired Wade so she could financially benefit from his lead role in the case. That was especially “ridiculous” and “absurd,” he said, because Willis unsuccessfully offered the top prosecutor job to former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes and another prominent lawyer, Gabe Banks, before hiring Wade for it.

“If she has this grand plan scheme in order to profit off of the prosecution of this case, because that's what they're saying, they’re saying that she telepathically or prophetically was able to know that Mr. Barnes and Mr. Banks would turn her down so she could then hire Mr. Wade,” Abbate argued. “It's a desperate attempt to remove a prosecutor from a case for absolutely no reason, Your Honor, other than harassment and embarrassment.”

Addressing claims that Willis financially benefitted from the taxpayer money Wade received from the case, Abbate said, "The allegations and assertions that Ms. Willis was living the lifestyle of the rich and the famous is a joke, absolute joke."

He noted that Willis had endured hardships because of the case, such as having to move because of violent threats from Trump supporters.

Questions about case law and burden of proof

McAfee, himself a former Fulton County and federal prosecutor, appeared unconvinced of Abbate’s arguments at times, peppering him with questions and challenging some of his legal citations about what standard of proof – and quality of evidence – should be applied.

After more than three hours of argument, McAfee did not issue a ruling from the bench. Instead, he said he would take the time needed to sort through the massive volume of evidence and weigh the arguments for and against disqualification.

“There are several legal issues to sort through, several factual determinations that I have to make and those aren’t ones I can make at this moment,” McAfee said. “I will be taking the time to make sure that I give this case the full consideration it’s due. I hope to have an answer for everyone within the next two weeks.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fani Willis hearing takeaways: Disqualification case hot with tension