Republican Sen. Bill Cowsert asked several Fulton County officials at a May 3 investigation committee hearing whether they believed county officials should have a greater influence over the special prosecutor appointed by the district attorney.

Republican Sen. Bill Cowsert asked several Fulton County officials at a May 3 investigation committee hearing whether they believed county officials should have a greater influence over the special prosecutor appointed by the district attorney.

Credit: Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder

The chairman of a Georgia Senate committee says he will subpoena Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis if she refuses to appear before the panel that is investigating accusations of misconduct against the prosecutor pursuing felony charges against former President Donald Trump and his allies.

On Friday, Fulton County Chairman Robb Pitts, Chief Financial Officer Sharon Whitmore, and County Attorney Soo Jo testified at a four-hour committee hearing at the Georgia State Capitol about the degree of autonomy constitutional officers like district attorneys have, as well as recent changes county officials have made to close ethical and financial reporting loopholes for those elected officials.

The county officials said Friday that they updated a county code in April to close loopholes that allowed Willis to avoid getting county approval before hiring Nathan Wade in November 2021 as special prosecutor in the 2020 presidential election interference case.

Willis has dealt with a hit to her public image since January after it was revealed that she had a romantic relationship with Wade, who was leading a case that in August resulted in felony racketeering charges against Trump and 18 co-defendants. Wade resigned in March.

Athens Republican Sen. Bill Cowsert, chairman of the special investigation panel, said Friday he hopes Willis will appear voluntarily before a state Senate panel that is investigating allegations that Willis committed prosecutorial and financial misconduct.

Willis cannot be sanctioned by the Senate committee, but it can subpoena her to turn over evidence and to testify under oath. Former Gov. Roy Barnes, who declined Willis’ offer to serve as special prosecutor in 2021 in the case against Trump, attended Friday’s hearing with plans to serve as legal counsel for Willis if she is subpoenaed.

“She’s a key part of the investigation that her viewpoints are valued by us,” Cowsert said. “We need to hear what she has to say and her explanation of what she thinks are the appropriate rules ought to be going forward so we don’t have this kind of scandal give Georgia a black eye.”

The first public accusations that Willis and Wade were romantically linked became public in January in a motion filed by an attorney for Trump co-defendant, Michael Roman, who argued that Wade and Willis’ undisclosed relationship improperly financially benefited Willis.

In April, the Fulton County Commission updated its ethics and anti-nepotism policies to cover elected officials like the district attorney. Under the new rules, all constitutional officers must report any gifts valued at $100 on their financial disclosures. Willis would have been prohibited from having a personal relationship with someone she supervises under the expanded anti-nepotism policy.

Cowsert asked Fulton County Attorney Soo Jo if she agreed with his interpretation of the state law, which would seem to imply that Willis would need permission from the County Commission in order to hire an independent contractor such as Wade.

According to Jo, previous court rulings have interpreted the law as allowing district attorneys to appoint and determine compensation for special assistant district attorneys without the county board’s consent.

She also said disputes over finances and control usually turn into a tug-of-war between constitutional offices and local elected officials, who set the budget but must also cover shortfalls and legal ramifications.

“I do believe there are some practical and legal challenges for all counties and elected officials who are in and in between state where you have independence, but you depend on the county for finances,” Jo said.

Cowsert on Friday recommended state legislators consider implementing a statewide policy that addresses tensions between county commissioners and constitutional officers over how much discretion and autonomy they should have.

“We need to have a state law that provides ethical guidelines for prosecutors, for sheriffs, for clerks of court, for tax commissioners,” Cowsert said. “They are not county officers, but they need to have accepted norms of conduct and ethical guidelines. It’s our job in the state government to come up with that from the state level.”

Pitts said that the Fulton commission should be able to have more control since the board sets the multimillion dollar budgets.

Robb Pitts

Fulton County Commission Chairman Robb Pitts said following a May 3 Senate committee meeting that he would support legislation that gives county commissions more authority over budgets for constitutional officers.

Credit: Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder

Pitts said that he agrees with prosecutors having the right to determine which cases their office will prosecute, including sweeping racketeering cases like the one Willis is pressing against Trump and his co-defendants. However, he said he believes that the county officials who set the budget should have similar financial control over elected officials like the sheriff, district attorney, tax commissioner, probate court judge and superior court clerks as they have with other local departments.

Pitts said that he and other county commissioners were unaware of Willis hiring Wade until it was reported by local media.

“We give millions of dollars and I think as an elected official with a fiduciary responsibility that I should have the right to know how the money is being spent,” Pitts said following Friday’s committee hearing.

Willis told a crowd at a community outreach event in Atlanta Friday that she finds it interesting that the Republican majority Senate is attacking her credibility at a time when more Black people like herself are being elected as district attorneys in Georgia.

This year, Willis is seeking a second term as district attorney. Her biggest challenge will be in the May 21 Democratic Party primary when she faces Christian Wise Smith, who’s served as Atlanta city solicitor and as a Fulton County prosecutor. The winner of the Democratic primary will have a significant advantage in the Nov. 5 general election in a match up against Courtney Kramer, a self-described MAGA attorney who has worked in the Trump White House. Kramer faces an uphill battle in heavily Democratic Fulton.

Willis said prosecutors and law enforcement have been working closely as part of an increased emphasis on locking up violent criminals and outreach programs that led to a significant drop in Atlanta’s crime rate this year.

“They can look all they want,” Willis said in a video footage taken by several Atlanta news outlets on Friday. “The DA’s office has done everything according to the books. We are following the law.”

“I can prosecute high-profile cases and I can prosecute everyday cases when they need to be prosecuted,” Willis later said.

The scandal surrounding Wade and Willis’ relationship garnered national headlines as hundreds of thousands of people watched live streams of Wade and Willis testifying at a February hearing on motions from Trump and co-defendants seeking to disqualify Willis from the election interference case on grounds of prosecutorial misconduct.

Willis has denied any allegations of professional misconduct and misappropriation of government money. Both Wade and Willis testified during the Superior Court hearing that they did not become romantically involved until several months after Wade was hired as a special prosecutor in November 2022 and that they stopped dating in the following summer.

But critics of Willis not disclosing having a personal relationship have accused the two of taking advantage of Wade being paid about $750,000 by Fulton by splurging on vacations that included a Caribbean cruise and touring wineries in California. To cover her share of vacation expenses, Willis testified that she paid Wade several thousand dollars in cash in order to cover her share of vacation expenses.

Four of the co-defendants pleaded guilty to various charges in the case, while Trump and the remaining 14 defendants have pleaded not guilty.

A Georgia Court of Appeals is expected to render a ruling by May 13 whether to grant a motion by Trump and several of his co-defendants asking the court to review Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee’s decision to allow Willis to remain on the case following Wade’s resignation. In the March 3 ruling, McAfee wrote that Willis actions showed a tremendous lapse in judgment but that the defense was unable to prove there was conflict of interest that warranted dismissing the case.

Sen. Harold Jones, an Augusta Democrat, said that Friday’s lengthy committee meeting was a waste of time, arguing Fulton’s government website and a few follow up questions could have answered most of the senators’ questions.

“There’s nothing that you learned as far as the state Senate committee is concerned except maybe now we’re about to start having constitutional officers just change the way they do their budget, a process that has been in effect for over 30 years,” Jones said. “I want all constitutional officers to realize that apparently the Georgia State Senate is about to change the law because of one event to happen in Fulton County.”

This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Georgia Recorder.