Fani T. Willis ran for district attorney in Georgia’s Fulton County in 2020 with the slogan “Integrity matters!” and frequently pummeled the incumbent, her former boss, with accusations of ethical lapses. Soon after her victory, she set up a group to interview job candidates called the Integrity Transition Hiring Committee.
One of its members was Nathan J. Wade, a lawyer and municipal court judge from the Atlanta suburbs whom she counted as a longtime friend and mentor. Indeed, it was the personal bond they shared that Ms. Willis has described as a key to her decision to hire him to lead the criminal case of a lifetime: her office’s prosecution of former President Donald J. Trump for his efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss.
“I need someone I can trust,” she said in a 2022 interview.
But in recent days, allegations have surfaced that Mr. Wade was not only a mentor to Ms. Willis, but also a romantic partner.
The allegations first appeared publicly in a court motion filed this month by Michael Roman, one of Mr. Trump’s 14 co-defendants in the Georgia case. That same day, according to court documents, Ms. Willis received a subpoena to testify from Mr. Wade’s wife in their divorce case. In an interview with The New York Times, a person familiar with the situation said Ms. Willis and Mr. Wade had grown close after meeting in a legal education course for judges in 2019 — some two years before she hired him as special prosecutor in the Trump case.
The two lawyers had at times been affectionate with each other in public settings, the person said.
Ms. Willis, who has been divorced since 2005, has not addressed the allegations of a romantic relationship, nor has Mr. Wade. Ms. Willis’s office said it would reply to Mr. Roman’s motion in court filings.
On Friday, credit card statements included in a filing in Mr. Wade’s divorce case show that he purchased airline tickets for himself and Ms. Willis on April 25, 2023, for a trip from Atlanta to San Francisco, and on Oct. 4, 2022, for a trip to Miami.
They appear to partially support the contention in Mr. Roman’s motion that Mr. Wade and Ms. Willis had made trips to numerous vacation spots together, with Mr. Wade paying for some of the travel.
Whether these new revelations will disrupt the Trump case — or Ms. Willis and Mr. Wade’s role in it — remains unclear. Mr. Roman’s motion argues that Ms. Willis and Mr. Wade violated the state bar’s rules of professional conduct, the county code regarding conflicts of interest and, possibly, federal law. It calls for the case against Mr. Roman to be dismissed, and for Mr. Wade, Ms. Willis and Ms. Willis’s entire office to be disqualified from the case.
In a letter to Ms. Willis on Friday, the county commissioner who chairs the board’s audit committee, Bob Ellis, demanded documents from her in an effort to determine whether county funds paid to Mr. Wade “were converted to your personal gain in the form of subsidized travel or other gifts.”
On Saturday morning, Norman Eisen, special counsel to the House Judiciary Committee during the first Trump impeachment, who has been vocal in supporting the Georgia prosecution, called on Mr. Wade to step down, saying that the recent allegation of an affair “had become a distraction” though it was not legally required.
At the very least, the revelations have raised questions about Ms. Willis’s motivation for hiring Mr. Wade, a legal generalist who appears to act as a sort of player-manager for the prosecution’s multi-lawyer team.
A review of Mr. Wade’s more than two decades as a lawyer by The New York Times also raises the issue of his qualifications, and whether they were sufficient to justify his appointment to a job that has made him more than $650,000 in taxpayer dollars and catapulted him to the top of one of the highest-profile criminal cases in the country.
As a fixture on the legal and political scene in suburban Cobb County, Mr. Wade spent years handling low-level criminal cases, first as a prosecutor and then a judge. But he yearned to take on weightier work. And while he landed some, defending clients in a number of serious felony cases, his dream of being elected a superior court judge, where he could preside over bigger cases, was repeatedly denied to him by voters.
Mr. Wade’s publicly available record as a lawyer shows scant evidence that he prosecuted major criminal cases, with no evidence that he has handled a major political corruption case or one involving the state’s complicated racketeering statute, known as RICO, under which all of the defendants in the Trump case have been charged.
“The realm of attorneys who handle Georgia RICO cases is a small one, and he is not someone who was in that realm before the Trump case,” said Chris Timmons, an Atlanta trial lawyer who handled white-collar cases for more than 15 years as a prosecutor.
Several former Georgia prosecutors say that Mr. Wade’s fee, of $250 per hour, did not seem excessive. But some of them also questioned whether he had the qualifications to lead such a high-stakes case.
“I can’t judge on whether it’s a legitimate hire, but I think it’s a legitimate question to ask why this particular lawyer was hired,” said Danny Porter, the former longtime district attorney in Gwinnett County and a Republican.
Speaking recently at a historically Black church in Atlanta, Ms. Willis said that the questions raised about her hiring of Mr. Wade were racist. She praised Mr. Wade’s “impeccable credentials” and said they were being questioned because both she and Mr. Wade were Black.
Mr. Wade could not be reached for comment for this story. But his defenders point to the measurable successes the prosecution team has notched so far under his stewardship. Prosecutors have obtained four guilty pleas from the original cast of 19 co-defendants, and beaten back, so far, an effort to have the case moved to the federal court system, which would offer some advantages to the defendants.
Gerald A. Griggs, a lawyer and the president of the state N.A.A.C.P. who knows both Mr. Wade and Ms. Willis personally, noted that as a defense lawyer, Mr. Wade brings a valuable perspective to a team that includes a number of veteran prosecutors.
A defense lawyer “can show you where the holes are to make sure your case is strong,” he said.
From traffic tickets to felonies
Mr. Wade, according to an old job application, was born in Houston, studied at Texas State University, then went on to attend John Marshall Law School in Atlanta. He once told an Atlanta-area magazine, Cobb in Focus, that his career path was influenced by his father, a Vietnam veteran, and by early involvement in church activities that sparked an interest in public speaking.
By the late 1990s, Mr. Wade was in Cobb County, where he spent some time as an assistant solicitor, a prosecuting job that handles traffic cases and minor crimes. He moved to private practice to focus on civil matters but told the magazine that he continued to do some prosecution work for local municipalities.
Mr. Wade’s civil cases have ranged from divorces to paternity matters, child support, car accidents, small claims and personal injury issues. The criminal cases he handled as a defense lawyer included clients charged with aggravated assault and battery, armed robbery, rape, cocaine trafficking and financial fraud.
Ron Coleman, a retired Atlanta lawyer, said he faced Mr. Wade in a 2016 case in which Mr. Wade’s client claimed that she found glass in her food at a chain restaurant. A settlement was reached in mediation, and one of the things that Mr. Coleman recalled was that Mr. Wade was not as aggressive as some other lawyers he has worked against in such cases.
“I’ve dealt with a lot of guys who would destroy you if they saw an opening, but he didn’t strike me as having that kind of focus or intensity,” he said.
In a 2021 slip and fall case in which one of Mr. Wade’s clients was suing another restaurant company, Robert Jenkins, a lawyer for the defendant, said he found Mr. Wade to be both assertive and skilled.
“He was forceful, but cool and composed,” he said. “And when he asks question number one, he knows what question number three is going to be. He seemed two steps ahead.”
A Black Republican amid demographic change
Mr. Wade had already made history, in 2011, as the first Black man to be appointed to a judgeship in the city of Marietta, Ga. As an associate judge for the Marietta Municipal Court, he dealt with small-bore matters like traffic stops. He set his sights on more.
Politically, it seemed as though there might be a path. Cobb County’s population boomed in the 1960s and 1970s with an influx of white city dwellers fearful of an integrating Atlanta. In the 1990s it was represented by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who in 1994 led a national conservative resurgence known as the Republican Revolution.
But by the 2000s, demographic change was afoot as racial attitudes shifted and people of all kinds sought the same suburban idyll. As it gained residents, Cobb County became increasingly integrated, with Black residents growing to nearly 30 percent of the population in 2022 from just under 10 percent in 1990.
For years, Mr. Wade was a regular at county Republican breakfast meetings, and he served for a time as a delegate to the county convention, said Jason Shepherd, who chaired the Cobb County Republican Party at the time.
Mr. Shepherd said he once helped distribute yard signs for Mr. Wade during one of his numerous failed bids to be elected to a higher judgeship, and called him “charismatic,” “energetic” and “more on the Republican side on law enforcement issues.”
In 2016, during one of his unsuccessful attempts to run for Cobb County superior court judge, he was supported by Ashleigh Merchant — the lawyer who filed the motion this month on Mr. Roman’s behalf that seeks to have him removed from the Trump case. The motion questions Mr. Wade’s qualifications. But in a Facebook post in the midst of his judge’s race, she praised him for his extensive résumé.
“Nathan has practiced in every area of the law that appears before the Superior Court bench,” she wrote. (She recently explained her change of heart by saying that Mr. Wade seemed like a better choice to her than his opponent at the time.)
According to the Cobb County Board of Elections and Registration, Mr. Wade ran four times for superior court judge between 2008 and 2016. They were nonpartisan races. He lost each time.
Mr. Wade found himself embroiled in Cobb County politics in a different way in 2020, when he was accused in a lawsuit filed by a local NBC affiliate of heading an investigation of the county jail that, according to the suit, was in fact a ruse by the longtime sheriff at the time, Neil Warren, a Republican, to keep reporters from accessing documents about a string of jailhouse deaths.
No investigative report ever came publicly to light. The Cobb County Sheriff’s Office said it had no such report in its files and was “unable” to comment on any work Mr. Wade might have done on the jail.
Mr. Warren did not respond to numerous calls and texts seeking comment. Mr. Wade also declined to answer questions on the matter. But in an earlier court hearing, he said his inquiry had not been memorialized in documents. “I have obviously my brainchild, what’s going on in my mind about it,” he said. “That’s what I have.”
Two lawyers land two big jobs
When Ms. Willis won election in 2020, she instilled high hopes for a fresh start at the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office, which is the largest such office in Georgia and handles most of the criminal cases in Atlanta. Her predecessor, Paul L. Howard Jr., who had been in office for more than 20 years, was burdened with a recent ruling against him from the state ethics commission, a sexual harassment complaint (of which he was later found not guilty) and questions, raised by Ms. Willis, about whether he had played politics in his handling of a high-profile police shooting.
Ms. Willis, who had been one of Mr. Howard’s courtroom stars, handily defeated him in a Democratic primary runoff in August 2020. In heavily Democratic Fulton County, there was no Republican opponent on the general election ballot. She would become the first woman to hold the job.
“Y’all, we made herstory,” she said in her victory speech. “You have my word, during my tenure as district attorney in Fulton County, we will be a beacon for justice and ethics in Georgia and across the nation.”
She took office in January 2021. The next month, she opened the criminal investigation into Mr. Trump and his allies and began building a team to prosecute the case. Some of them, like the lawyers Donald Wakeford and Daysha Young, were experienced prosecutors who had left the office but rejoined as full-time employees after Ms. Willis’s election.
She also contracted for outside expertise, bringing in John Floyd, a lawyer widely considered Georgia’s premier expert on racketeering law. She hired Anna Green Cross, a former prosecutor with extensive experience trying murder cases who has been a key player for the D.A.’s office in federal court, where some co-defendants in the Trump case have been arguing, so far unsuccessfully, to have the case moved.
Ms. Willis said she also needed a special prosecutor to lead the growing team, and turned to Mr. Wade to help her find one.
“The truth is, and I mean it in no way disrespectful to Mr. Wade, he was not my first choice as special counsel,” she said in an interview in 2022.
She said she had told a number of more experienced or well-known lawyers about the job first. But they turned her down. At least one of them was concerned that trying Mr. Trump could open the door to personal security threats. Eventually, she said, she and other advisers turned to Mr. Wade and encouraged him to take the position.
Ms. Willis recalled that Mr. Wade said, “Well, you know, I’ve spent a little time as a prosecutor, but really more of my career has been as a defense attorney.”
She replied: “Well, I’ve been a defense attorney and a prosecutor, too. What I need is a trial lawyer.”
From that point, Ms. Willis recalled, “it was a convincing process” to get Mr. Wade to sign up. “But he wasn’t afraid,” she said. “And I needed someone not afraid.”
Mr. Wade’s first day under contract with the district attorney’s office was Nov. 1, 2021. He was to be paid an hourly rate of $250 per hour, the same rate as Ms. Cross. Records show Mr. Floyd has charged between $150 and $200 per hour.
County records posted online also show that Mr. Wade’s law partner, Christopher A. Campbell, has been paid $126,070 by the district attorney’s office since June 2021 and that his former law partner, Terrence Bradley, was paid at least $74,480 since May of that year.
Jeff DiSantis, a spokesman for Ms. Willis’s office, said that the payments to Mr. Campbell and Mr. Bradley were for services unrelated to the Trump case, including making court appearances in cases on behalf of the D.A.’s office when it was short-staffed and removing documents in potential public corruption cases that members of the D.A.’s office are not allowed to see.
Managing the case
In court appearances, various members of the Trump prosecution team have taken turns handling presentations before judges. In state court, many of the complex legal issues that have arisen have been argued by prosecutors other than Mr. Wade.
But much of the work of the Trump prosecution team occurs behind closed doors, which makes Mr. Wade’s full contribution difficult to discern.
In some cases, Mr. Wade has raised the ire of lawyers connected to the case. One of them was Tim Parlatore, the lawyer for Bernard Kerik, a former New York Police commissioner who had been subpoenaed to testify by the district attorney’s office.
In a letter to Mr. Wade in October, Mr. Parlatore said that prosecutors had identified Mr. Kerik as a co-conspirator in the case. For that reason, Mr. Parlatore said, Mr. Wade should have understood from the beginning that he would not allow Mr. Kerik to testify without a grant of immunity.
“You seemed genuinely surprised by this relatively basic application of the 5th Amendment right to not answer questions from the very prosecuting agency that has publicly accused him of being a co-conspirator,” Mr. Parlatore wrote, addressing Mr. Wade.
Another who clashed with Mr. Wade was Brian F. McEvoy, a lawyer for Gov. Brian P. Kemp of Georgia, whom Mr. Trump had telephoned late in 2020 for help in overturning Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s win in the state. In a 2022 motion, Mr. McEvoy described a breakdown in communications between him and prosecutors as they discussed the terms of a potential interview of the governor.
Mr. McEvoy said Mr. Wade’s demand that Mr. Kemp meet with prosecutors within a specific time frame came off as “threatening.”
Ms. Willis weighed in with an email to Mr. McEvoy, accusing him of “rude and disparaging” conduct toward her staff that was “beneath an officer of the court.”
One the most awkward moments Mr. Wade has spent in the spotlight came when a number of co-defendants in the Trump case complained to the presiding judge that they had received auto-generated mailers from a local law firm that was trying to drum up business.
“Our lawyers have an abundance of experience handling cases in the state and local courts of Metro Atlanta,” the letters stated.
The law firm was Mr. Wade’s.
Reporting was contributed by Christian Boone and Rick Rojas in Atlanta, and Danny Hakim and Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs in New York. Research was contributed by Kitty Bennett, Susan Beachy and Jack Begg.