Why Nathan Wade, under fire for alleged affair with Fani Willis, is facing new scrutiny

Special Prosecutor Nathan Wade (left), representing the District Attorney's office, talks with Attorney Scott Grubman, who is defending Ken Chesebro, and other attorneys after Fulton County Superior Judge Scott McAfee heard motions from attorneys representing Ken Chesebro and Sidney Powell in Atlanta on Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2023.
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MARIETTA, Ga. — A year before Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis hired Nathan Wade to lead the election fraud case against former President Donald Trump, the relatively unknown private attorney was embroiled in another high-profile case investigating suspicious deaths in an Atlanta-area jail.

Now, as Willis has confirmed she has had a romantic "personal relationship" with Wade, his work on the jail deaths case is also being placed under a microscope − including by a defense lawyer seeking to have them both kicked off the Trump prosecution.

Accusations that Wade mishandled the jail-deaths investigation in 2020 are adding to questions about Willis’s judgment in hiring him for the sensitive assignment of investigating the former president and alleged co-defendants in their alleged effort to overturn Georgia’s presidential election that year.

“Ms. Willis is relying on him being appointed in Cobb County as part of his credentials for why she hired him … and why he was qualified,” said Ashleigh Merchant, a prominent Atlanta defense lawyer.

More: Fani Willis admits to relationship with prosecutor. What does that mean for the Trump case?

“So I think it's important to see what happened in Cobb,” Merchant, who is representing one of Trump’s co-defendants in the election fraud case, Michael Roman, told USA TODAY. “I think it's relevant to what's going on now because it does reflect on her decision to hire him.”

Merchant spoke Thursday, a day before Willis and Wade both admitted the affair but maintained that they did nothing wrong. Both said in a 167-page court filing that the affair began after Willis appointed Wade as special prosecutor in November 2021, and there are no legal or ethical reasons for them to step away from the case. She was unavailable for comment immediately after Willis's defiant court filing.

More: A highly anticipated booking photo. A notorious jail. The Donald Trump arrest recapped

Now, as part of her effort to get the Trump case dismissed, Merchant is seeking documentation from Cobb County to determine if there was potential corruption and cronyism involving Willis, Wade and a third person, the former No. 2 at the Sheriff's Department, Sonya Allen.

Wade did not respond to a request for comment. Willis and Allen, the former Sheriff’s department official — who now works for Willis as a top aide — also did not respond to requests for comment sent to the Fulton County DA’s office. Last month, however, Willis strongly defended Wade's qualifications and her decision to hire him back in November 2021 for the Trump investigation, which was then nine months old.

Jail crisis scrutiny ‘has to stop’ 

Wade was hired by the Cobb County Sheriff’s Department in June 2020, after more than a year and a half of brutally critical media coverage about the deaths of predominantly Black inmates, including one who begged repeatedly to be sent to the hospital for nearly eight hours while struggling to breathe.

“It has to stop!” then-Deputy Chief Allen said about the “constant attack and scrutiny” by the media and civil rights advocates in a June 14, 2020, previously undisclosed email to the department’s rank and file, a copy of which was obtained by USA TODAY. Allen wrote that she retained Wade’s law firm to review cases "that have involved alleged excessive use of force, deadly force, discrimination or neglect ... with a fine-tooth comb.”

“This is not a witch-hunt,” Allen told her colleagues, who patrol Cobb County, conduct investigations and oversee the county jail complex and Adult Detention Center, “it's a desire to clear the name of this agency and its men and women and of course to give the public the peace of mind they deserve.”

’My brainchild’

When Wade finished his investigation later that year, he released no formal public report about what led to the deaths at the notoriously dangerous lock-up.

Asked about his findings for a local TV news investigation, Wade conceded that he created no “documents, communications, or records memorializing, reflecting evidence, or relating to the work,” according to the news station, 11Alive.

“I have obviously my brainchild, what’s going on in my mind about it. That’s what I have,” Wade told a lawyer for 11Alive who was trying to obtain Sheriff’s Department internal records about the probe through public records act requests. That outcome was condemned by local criminal justice reform activists and defense attorneys, some of whom said Wade’s investigation helped the Sheriff’s Department use the pretense of an ongoing investigation to deny public access to potentially embarrassing records.

'Total disregard of his duty’

One of those defense lawyers, Cindi Yeager, now questions why Willis would hire Wade to oversee one of the most consequential public interest investigations in recent history into whether Trump — and some of his White House and campaign aides, including his lawyer Rudy Giuliani and former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows tried to illegally overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election in Georgia that Trump lost to Democrat Joe Biden.

“Based on the complete lack of following the necessary protocol for conducting a proper investigation, I would question anyone who would consider utilizing Mr. Wade’s services for this type of investigation, especially one that involves such complicated issues as in the Trump election prosecution,” Yeager said Thursday.

“To say he kept no written notes, no record of interviews conducted, no record of reports he reviewed, amounts to a total disregard of his duty,” said Yeager, who is now the co-chief assistant District Attorney in Cobb County.

A bombshell allegation and trips to California wine country

Roman’s defense attorney Merchant garnered international headlines on Jan. 8 when she filed a bombshell court motion alleging that Willis was having an “an improper, clandestine personal relationship” with Wade that should result in both of them — and the entire DA’s office — being disqualified from prosecuting the case and to dismiss the whole case on that basis.

What’s more, Merchant alleged, Wade was using some of the more than $650,000 he made as chief special prosecutor in the Trump case to take Willis on romantic vacations to California wine country, Florida and Caribbean cruises.

Since then, Trump himself — and a third co-defendant — have joined in Merchant’s motion.

In an affidavit filed Friday along with Willis's motion, Wade confirmed that the two did travel together. But he said both used their own money and that Willis received no money or other form of financial benefit from the money he's been paid for the case.

Jailhouse deaths and a controversial investigation

The presiding judge in the case, Scott McAfee, has given Willis until Feb. 2 to respond. He has also set a Feb. 15 court date for a hearing on the motion to disqualify.

As part of her effort to have the election fraud case tossed, Merchant recently filed three requests seeking information about Wade’s handling of the jail investigation in Cobb, a suburban enclave just north of Fulton County, which includes Atlanta.

More: Georgia DA Fani Willis rejects idea that Trump prosecution could amount to election interference

Those requests, which Merchant shared with USA TODAY, seek “any and all documentation, emails, meeting notes, letters” and other information regarding Wade’s probe into “potential problems and wrongdoing” at the jail.

To that end, Merchant is focusing particularly on how aggressively Wade and his law firm investigated four jailhouse deaths in 2019 and 2020, including Kevil Wingo, a 37-year-old father of three who unsuccessfully begged for medical attention because he couldn’t breathe.

An 11Alive investigation uncovered and aired videotape of Wingo thrashing about in his cell.

After refusing to check his vitals, the jail nurse in charge put Wingo in a padded cell “to mute his screams for help,” 11Alive reported. “He died 59 minutes later from a perforated ulcer.”

Wade’s pricey ‘pro bono’ probe

Merchant’s records request also seeks to determine how much money Wade and others at his law firm were paid for the investigation.

Invoices show that Wade billed at $550 an hour for his services, despite an Oct. 8, 2020 affidavit also obtained by USA TODAY, in which Sonya Allen of the Sheriff's department said Wade and his law firm had offered to do the investigation “pro bono,” or for free, “as a public service to the community.”

On Friday, Wade confirmed in his affidavit in the Trump case that he was paid $550 an hour to conduct "an external independent accountability assessment and review" in the Cobb jail case.

Merchant has also filed public records act requests with the Fulton County DA’s office for information she says she needs to prepare for the Feb. 15 hearing. On Tuesday, she subpoenaed both Willis and Wade to testify at that hearing, contending that the DA’s office is intentionally withholding the information she seeks.

A Fulton County DA’s office official, in an interview Wednesday, said the office is complying with Merchant’s request.

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing investigations, also declined to comment on Willis’ relationship with Wade and with Allen, who now works for Willis as head of the Fulton County DA’s Anti-Corruption Division, and whether their performance in the Cobb jail investigation undermines her confidence in them.

The Fulton County DA’s office says the unit was established “to evaluate issues of government corruption and law enforcement misconduct to include elected officials, election tampering, sheriff deputies, and police officers.”

Wade's boss in jail probe joins Fani Willis’ office

Last month, Willis defended her selection of Wade for the Trump investigation, saying he is not only a “great friend” but an experienced lawyer with the “impeccable” credentials needed to be a special prosecutor overseeing the sprawling racketeering case and she contrasted attacks on Wade with the fact that the white lawyers Willis has hired for this case haven’t been publicly scrutinized.

"The Black man I chose has been a judge more than 10 years, run a private practice more than 20, represented businesses in civil litigation − I ain’t done y’all,” Willis said in a Sunday morning sermon Jan. 14 at the Big Bethel A.M.E Church in Atlanta. “Served as a prosecutor, a criminal defense lawyer, special assistant attorney general.”

Willis also referenced Wade’s jail investigation, noting that an elected Republican − Cobb County Sheriff Neil Warren − had hired him for that job.

"How come ... the same Black man I hired was acceptable when a Republican in another county hired him and paid him twice the rate?” Willis asked. “Why is the white male Republican's judgement good enough, but the black female Democrat's not?"

While Willis admitted being a “flawed” human being who makes mistakes, she did not address specifically whether she and Wade have been involved romantically.

Willis also has had nothing but praise for former Deputy Sheriff Allen, who she hired soon after taking office. At the time, Wade was helping Willis staff her team, according to three people familiar with his work for her.

Merchant, the Trump case defense lawyer, is also seeking information about Allen’s role in the Cobb County Jail probe and in hiring and overseeing Wade’s work on it.

“I think it's relevant to what's going on now because it does reflect on (Willis’s) decision to hire him, how she chose him and also the fact that Sonya Allen... is integral to him getting this contract in Fulton County,” Merchant said of the Trump investigation. She cited “witness interviews that I conducted” in the Trump case for why she believes Allen helped Wade get the assignment.

Clark Cunningham, a professor of law and ethics at Georgia State University College of Law, told USA TODAY that "Ashleigh Merchant is barking up a lot of trees and using all of her resourcefulness” in her defense of her client, but that her efforts are justified because of Wade’s key role in the jail probe.

“The fact that he apparently had no written records of his investigation and produced no written report − it seems to me if I were in a position of retaining a lawyer for something of such importance as this current case that it would certainly give me pause,” Cunningham said Thursday.

Investigating Donald Trump

The Fulton County DA official downplayed Allen’s prior lack of prosecutorial experience, saying Willis hired her to help oversee the office’s many investigations into corruption in its own Sheriff’s Department and jail system.

But by the end of her first month on the job, Willis also was clearly focusing on the “elected officials, election tampering” element of the anti-corruption unit that unit that Allen was now overseeing.

A few weeks later, Willis sent a letter to top Georgia officials, informing them that she had launched a criminal investigation into possible interference in the state's 2020 general election – including Trumps’ now-infamous call to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find 11,780 votes,” or just enough for him to win the key swing state.

And on Nov. 1 of that year, Willis hired Wade to be the lawyer who would lead that investigation.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Already under fire, GA Trump prosecutor Nathan Wade faces new questions