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State Investigations Create More Peril for Trump Prosecutor in Georgia

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State Investigations Create More Peril for Trump Prosecutor in Georgia

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A new investigation unfolding at the Georgia State Capitol is previewing the turbulence that Fani T. Willis, the district attorney prosecuting Donald J. Trump, may face even if a judge allows her to keep the high-stakes case.

At a hearing on Wednesday before a special committee of the State Senate, which recently began investigating Ms. Willis, the defense lawyer leading the disqualification effort testified that Ms. Willis had once taken a large sum of money from her political campaign for her personal use.

The senator presiding over the hearing, Bill Cowsert, a Republican, was taken aback by the allegation. “I think all of us up here that have campaigns know that you can’t take campaign funds for personal use, right?” he asked.

The defense lawyer, Ashleigh Merchant, told Mr. Cowsert that she was “not well versed in that area of law, but that is my understanding.” He replied, “It’s pretty black and white.”

There is no evidence to back up the allegation. In fact, Ms. Willis lent her first campaign nearly $50,000, drawn from a retirement account, and was paid back only a fraction of that, according to her office, campaign finance records and her past remarks.

But the incident reflected that even if Ms. Willis survives the effort to disqualify her, she would face tough inquiries by Georgia Republicans that could perpetuate questions about her character and uncertainty around the Trump case for months to come.

Seven months have passed since Ms. Willis brought the racketeering case against Mr. Trump and 18 of his allies, charging them with conspiring to overturn his 2020 election loss in Georgia. Four of the defendants have already pleaded guilty, and Ms. Willis at one point told the judge, Scott McAfee of Fulton County Superior Court, that she was aiming for a trial to start in August.

But the case was upended in January after Ms. Merchant revealed in a court filing that Ms. Willis had a romantic relationship with Nathan Wade, the lawyer she hired in November 2021 to manage the Trump case.

Ms. Merchant represents Michael Roman, a defendant and former Trump campaign official. She and other defense lawyers have said that Ms. Willis engaged in “self-dealing,” because she took a number of vacations with Mr. Wade after hiring him while using public funds to pay him more than $650,000 to date.

The filing forced Ms. Willis to publicly acknowledge that she and Mr. Wade had pursued a romance. And the allegations were concerning enough that Judge McAfee held a series of public hearings over the last few weeks to determine whether the relationship had created a disqualifying conflict of interest. The judge has said that he will decide by next week.

Legal experts have pointed out that Ms. Willis could have avoided this particular controversy had she not had a romantic relationship with someone who worked for her.

Ms. Merchant testified on Wednesday that if Ms. Willis had gone to the county and said, “I’m having an affair with this man, but he is brilliant and he would be an amazing prosecutor on this election interference case,” then “we wouldn’t be here,” because the hiring, Ms. Merchant later added, “wouldn’t have been approved.”

The Senate investigation is one of several springing up around Ms. Willis. Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, a Trump ally and the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has used the conflict-of-interest allegations to seek more records as part of the committee’s ongoing investigation of the district attorney’s office. Georgia Republicans are in the process of empowering a prosecutorial oversight commission that is also expected to review the matter.

The Republican-controlled Senate created its special committee to investigate Ms. Willis soon after the motion was filed to disqualify her. The committee has no power to punish the district attorney. But with the power to issue subpoenas, it can embarrass her.

That could help Mr. Trump as he seeks to win Georgia in the presidential election. Negative headlines about Ms. Willis generated by the committee’s work could also influence potential jurors if the Trump case ends up going to trial.

During the Senate hearing on Wednesday, Ms. Merchant said that Ms. Willis recently testified that she had used a large amount of money from her failed 2018 campaign for a local judgeship to reimburse Mr. Wade for expenses from their vacations.

Ms. Merchant said that Ms. Willis testified “that the majority of the cash she had on hand was from her campaign,” and that it was “a loan she had given herself from the campaign.”

“She was very clear about that,” Ms. Merchant added.

In fact, Ms. Willis’s testimony on Feb. 15 was not clear. She said: “When I ran for judge I took $50,000 of my personal money out of my retirement and that money ended up being lost.”

Later in her testimony, when she was pressed further about how she had repaid Mr. Wade, she said that she had taken “a large amount of money on my first campaign,” and that she had “kept some of the cash of that.” Neither the judge nor defense lawyers asked at the time what exactly she meant.

Campaign finance records from Ms. Willis’s judicial campaign show loans of $49,000, and that the campaign reimbursed her roughly $8,500 in 2018.

After the Senate hearing, a spokesman for Ms. Willis’s office said Ms. Merchant had “misstated the D.A.’s testimony.” The spokesman, Jeff DiSantis, said Ms. Willis “testified that she took money out of her retirement to fund her unsuccessful 2018 campaign for Superior Court judge.”

“She did not testify that she took money out of her campaign for herself, other than the repayment of the loan that is detailed in her campaign report,” he added.

Ms. Merchant, in an email, said that her testimony “was based on Ms. Willis’s statements under oath.”

The Senate committee is planning to meet again in the next few weeks.

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