Georgia Republicans start issuing subpoenas in probe of Fulton County DA Fani Willis

Georgia Republicans start issuing subpoenas in probe of Fulton County DA Fani Willis © Provided by NBC News

ATLANTA — A Republican-led Senate panel in Georgia is moving forward with the public portion of its investigation into Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis that could eventually lead to the Democratic DA being subpoenaed to testify.

The state Senate’s Special Committee on Investigations has already issued a subpoena to Ashleigh Merchant, the defense attorney who’s been spearheading efforts to get Willis removed from the election interference case against former President Donald Trump. Merchant, the attorney for Trump co-defendant Michael Roman, is expected to provide testimony on Wednesday.

The panel’s purpose “is to thoroughly investigate the allegations of misconduct by the district attorney for Fulton County, Fani Willis, relating to potential conflicts of interest and misuse of public funds, to enact new or amend existing laws and/or change state appropriations to restore public confidence in the criminal justice system,” according to the state Senate website.

A source familiar with the committee’s plans told NBC News that the panel will issue more subpoenas, and expects a potential subpoena for Willis down the line.

State Sen. Bill Cowsert, a Republican and the committee chairman, said the investigation will take “many months” to complete, and acknowledged there will be more subpoenas to come.

Asked specifically about a potential subpoena of Willis, Cowsert said “I don’t know yet.”

Merchant has accused Willis of misconduct in the Trump case, arguing she failed to disclose a romantic relationship with Nathan Wade, a special prosecutor she appointed to lead the Trump case. Merchant has alleged that Willis benefitted financially because Wade, who’s been paid more than $600,000 for working on the case, took her on her trips and out to dinner.

Willis and Wade last month denied any wrongdoing in a court hearing on the allegations. They acknowledged they dated, but said the relationship began after Wade’s appointment and that Willis did not financially benefit from it. The judge presiding over the election interference case, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee, has said he hopes to rule on whether to disqualify Willis by mid-March.

For Wednesday’s Senate hearing, Merchant was asked to bring documents related to the disqualification effort that will likely include her lengthy text history with Terrence Bradley, Wade’s former law partner and divorce attorney, according to a copy of the subpoena obtained by NBC News. CNN first reported on Merchant’s subpoena.

In court last week, Bradley acknowledged he sent Merchant a text saying that Wade and Willis had “absolutely” started dating prior to his being appointed special prosecutor, but testified that was based on “speculation,” not personal knowledge.

The format of the hearing will likely make it easier for Merchant to discuss the content of the texts, something she couldn’t do outright in court.

Cowsert said the committee’s investigation will not interfere in the criminal prosecutions of Trump and his co-defendants.

“We’re not trying to disqualify Fani Willis. That’s up to the court,” he said. “We have an obligation to investigate any allegations of impropriety. Our chore then would be to either amend or create new laws to establish guardrails to restore public faith and trust in the criminal justice system.”

State Sen. Jason Esteves, one of three Democrats on the panel, called the committee’s investigation “an effort to keep the allegations alive and have Fani Willis remain the focus of coverage instead of Donald Trump.”

“This is just an attempt to prolong the controversy as much as possible to distract from the criminal trial,” Esteves said.

The committee was formed in January, after Merchant’s allegations first became public. It held one meeting in February, but Wednesday is the first time the panel is hearing testimony.

While it does have subpoena power, the committee does not have the authority to discipline Willis. If they do find any wrongdoing, they can either refer the case to proper governing authorities, including the newly approved prosecutor oversight panel, or recommend the creation of new laws.

The committee will likely submit a written report once its investigation is done.

Blayne Alexander and Charlie Gile reported from Atlanta, and Dareh Gregorian reported from New York.