Lawyers deliver final arguments on motion to disqualify Willis from Trump case

Fani Willis

ATLANTA – Lawyers for former President Donald Trump and several co-defendants in the Georgia election interference case asked a judge Friday to disqualify Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis from the case.

During a three-hour hearing, defense lawyers argued Willis is guilty of a conflict of interest for benefiting financially from her romantic relationship with Nathan Wade, who she hired as lead prosecutor in the case.

“She received a personal financial benefit of over $9,200 that she can’t account for,” said John Merchant, a lawyer representing co-defendant Michael Roman. “If the court allows this kind of behavior to go on, the entire public confidence in the system will be shot.”

While both Willis and Wade have acknowledged their romantic relationship, a key point of contention is whether it began before Willis hired Wade in November 2021 or after Wade was brought into the Fulton County investigation of Trump’s alleged attempts to overturn Democrat Joe Biden’s 2020 victory over the Republican incumbent in Georgia.

Robin Yeartie, a former friend of Willis who worked as an executive assistance to the district attorney, testified last month that the two began dating in 2019 after meeting at a conference.

But on Friday, Adam Abbate, an assistant prosecutor in Willis’ office, told Fulton Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee that Yeartie was a disgruntled former employee with an ax to grind against Willis for forcing Yeartie’s resignation from the office.

“She had absolutely no knowledge of the relationship,” Abbate said.

Another point the two sides argued over Friday was the burden of proof the defense carries in the case. While Merchant said the defense only has to show that Willis’ conduct gave the appearance of a conflict of interest, Abbate said Trump’s legal team must demonstrate an actual conflict occured.

The defense also took Willis to task for a speech she gave at a Black church in Atlanta shortly after her relationship with Wade surfaced in a motion lawyer Ashleigh Merchant filed in January.

Willis told the congregation she and Wade were being targeted because they are Black and that God is on her side in the case.

“She chose to pull out the race card and the God card,” said Craig Gillen, a lawyer representing co-defendant and former Georgia Republican Chairman David Shafer.

Trump lawyer Steve Sadow said Willis gave the church speech in an effort to prejudice future jurors who will hear the case against the defendants and their lawyers, a charge Abbate denied.

“There’s absolutely no evidence the defendants’ due process rights have been harmed in any way,” he said.

The two sides also argued over the validity of cellphone records that show almost 2,000 phone calls and 9,800 text messages between Wade and Willis during the first 11 months of 2021. The two have testified their romantic relationship didn’t start until early 2022.

Defense lawyers also cast doubt on Willis’ testimony that she did not receive any financial benefits from her relationship with Wade because she always paid him back in cash for whatever he spent on her.

“Prosecutors don’t act like this. Lawyers don’t act like this,” Gillen said. “They need to go.”

Abbate countered that Willis tended to keep cash around as a safety net, an assertion defense lawyers were unable to contradict. He also poked holes in the cellphone evidence by arguing that data from cellphones does not reliably reveal exact locations.

“It doesn’t prove a relationship,” he said. “It proves they were in communication with each other.”

At the end of the hearing, McAfee said he would issue a ruling within two weeks.

Crossover Day yields mix of survivors, casualties

The Georgia Capitol building in Atlanta (Photo by Beau Evans)

ATLANTA – Crossover Day has come and gone in the General Assembly this year, with some bills making the deadline to remain eligible for passage in 2024 and others falling by the wayside.

Significant progress has been made on sports betting and reforming Georgia’s Certificate of Need (CON) law governing hospital construction.

Lawmakers have taken steps toward reining in state tax incentives that attract jobs but cost Georgia taxpayers, starting with the popular but expensive film tax credit. After years of inaction on tort reform, lawmakers have passed a bill aimed at a narrow aspect of the issue.

But there was no action before Crossover Day on private school vouchers, another priority of Gov. Brian Kemp and legislative Republicans that has failed to make it through the General Assembly for years. And legislation making sweeping changes to Georgia’s election laws also did not survive Crossover Day.

Last Tuesday’s 41-12 vote in the state Senate in favor of a constitutional amendment asking voters whether to legalize sports betting in Georgia represents the most progress legalized gambling has made in the General Assembly. Senators already had passed an “enabling” bill spelling out how sports betting would be operated in the Peach State.

Any lawmakers who might be wavering on sports betting could be convinced to support the constitutional amendment because it puts the question in the hands of Georgia voters.

“I trust the people of Georgia to make the right decision,” said Sen. Carden Summers, R-Cordele.

The most significant CON reform legislation in years also won passage in the state House of Representatives on Tuesday, billed as a compromise between doing nothing and repealing the law entirely.

The bill would accelerate the state’s review of CON applications, remove spending thresholds governing hospital construction projects and raise the cap on the state tax credit supporting rural hospitals from $75 million a year to $100 million.

“Given the rapid evolution of health care in this country, we need to look for ways to make health care accessible and affordable,” said Rep. Butch Parrish, R-Swainsboro, the bill’s chief sponsor, who chaired a special committee on health care last year.

The most popular state tax incentive, the film tax credit, appears to be in for a haircut.

The House passed legislation on Crossover Day setting up 10 criteria to qualify for the richest form of the tax incentive. Film producers who can meet at least four of the 10 would be eligible for a 30% credit.

While the film tax credit is largely responsible for making Georgia a world leader in the industry, its fiscal impact of $1 billion a year makes it by far the most expensive tax incentive in the state’s job-attracting arsenal.

The legislation is likely to draw major pushback from the industry as it moves over to the state Senate. Opponents argue it would threaten the future viability of film and TV productions in Georgia at a time the Peach State has risen to third in the world.

Kemp put the brakes on an expected push for comprehensive tort reform at the start of the 2024 legislative session when he declared it too heavy a lift for one year. Instead, the Senate passed a narrowly focused bill last month to limit the ability of plaintiffs in lawsuits against commercial truckers to file suit directly against a trucking company’s insurance carrier.

Tort reform advocates could take solace that some progress is being made on their issue. Not so for Republican supporters of major changes to Georgia’s election laws. Crossover Day came and went without the Senate taking up legislation making it easier for individuals to file voter challenges and doing away with automatic voter registration.

GOP Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger responded quickly late Thursday night after the House failed to muster the two-thirds vote necessary to pass a constitutional amendment declaring only U.S. citizens could vote in Georgia elections. House Resolution 780 picked up 98 votes in the final vote taken on Crossover Day, well short of the 120 needed to pass a constitutional change.

“The border crisis and the (Biden) administration’s failure to act make it necessary for Georgia to take swift action,” Raffensperger said. “Multiple organizations with ties to Democrats are currently suing to end critical citizenship verification in our registration process, potentially exposing our elections to foreign interference, and diluting the power of legally restricted voters.”

Voting rights advocates celebrated the defeat of the most far-reaching elections law changes.

“Mass voter challenges are a recent phenomenon that allow any Georgia citizen to question the validity of voter registrations across the state,” said Joey McKinnon, executive director of the group Georgia Values Action. “That’s not concern over election integrity. It’s a way to cast a cloud of suspicion over honest Georgia voters and create a false narrative.”

While Republicans could take heart that the constitutional amendment limiting voting to U.S. citizens at least made it to the House floor, a private-school voucher bill that cleared the Senate’s GOP majority along party lines last year hadn’t shown up at all through Crossover Day.

The issue isn’t polling well with Georgia voters. A poll released on Tuesday by the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute found most registered voters in Georgia oppose vouchers.

But school-choice advocates needn’t be completely discouraged. Like any other measure that failed to survive the Crossover Day deadline, vouchers still could emerge during the 2024 legislative session’s final weeks by being attached to another bill that remains alive in either the House or Senate.

State Senate passes bill aimed at American Library Association

ATLANTA – The Republican-controlled Georgia Senate has passed legislation that would prohibit city, county, and regional libraries from using either tax dollars or private funds on any materials offered by the American Library Association (ALA).

Senate Bill 390 cleared the upper chamber in the General Assembly 33-20 along party lines Thursday on Crossover Day, the deadline legislation had to pass either the state House or Senate to remain alive for the year.

The ALA has become controversial in right-wing circles in recent years for promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the selection of library materials and for opposing book banning and other forms of censorship. Its president, Emily Drabinski, became a lightning rod two years ago when she characterized herself as a “Marxist lesbian.”

“They’re pushing a radical agenda,” Sen. Larry Walker III, R-Perry, the bill’s chief sponsor, told his Senate colleagues Thursday. “Their agenda and politics don’t match with conservative Georgia values.”

Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, opposed Walker’s bill as a “knee-jerk response” in the culture war being waged by Republicans that takes attention away from efforts to improve Georgia’s literacy rate, one of the 10 lowest in the nation.

“We should be spending our time encouraging more libraries and access to books,” Parent said.

Walker said significant changes were made to the legislation as it made its way through the Senate. A key amendment would ensure that Valdosta State University, which boasts Georgia’s only master’s degree program in library sciences, retains the ability to certify students and working librarians through the ALA until another accrediting organization can be formed.

The bill now heads to the state House of Representatives.

State Senate passes controversial religious freedom bill

State Sen. Ed Setzler

ATLANTA – The state Senate’s Republican majority passed a religious freedom bill Thursday, resurrecting an issue that roiled the General Assembly eight years ago.

Under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which passed 33-19 along party lines, the state and local governments would not be permitted to “substantially burden” an individual’s free exercise of religion unless the government could demonstrate it had a “compelling governmental interest” in doing so and that it was using the “least restrictive means” of intrusion.

Senate Bill 180 is aimed at protecting religious minorities from government intrusion through a “balancing test,” Sen. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, the bill’s chief sponsor, said on the Senate floor shortly before Thursday’s vote.

“It simply provides a tool to weigh the legitimate interests government has against people’s religious rights,” Setzler said. “We’re not trying to take anything from anybody.”

But the bill’s Democratic opponents said the measure could be used to discriminate against LGBTQ Georgians under the guise of religious freedom.

Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler, D-Stone Mountain, said passing the bill could hurt the state economically.

“We are telling LGBTQ Georgians and their families to leave our state and take their dollars elsewhere,” Butler said.

The General Assembly passed a RFRA bill in 2016 over objections from business organizations worried by threats from organizers of conventions and sporting events to boycott Georgia if the legislation became law.

But then-Republican Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed the measure after a storm of protest from civil rights groups that it threatened the rights of the state’s LGBTQ community.

Setzler said his bill is similar to a bipartisan federal RFRA law Congress passed back in 1993, a far different version than the legislation Deal vetoed.

Georgia lawmakers need to act because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that the protections the federal law provided extended only to intrusions by the federal government, not by states or local governments, Setzler said.

The legislation now heads to the Georgia House of Representatives.

Georgia House targets illegal immigrants after Athens murder

State Rep. Houston Gaines

ATLANTA – Legislation requiring local law enforcement agencies to comply with a 2006 state law aimed at illegal immigration cleared the Republican-controlled Georgia House Thursday.

House Bill 1105, which passed 97-74 primarily along party lines, comes on the heels of last week’s murder of Laken Riley, a 22-year-old nursing student, on the University of Georgia campus in Athens. A 26-year-old Venezuelan man allegedly in the country illegally has been charged with the crime.

The bill requires local sheriffs and jailers to cooperate with federal immigration authorities. Those that fail to determine the nationality of suspects being held in local jails and notify the U.S. Department of Homeland Security when they have a suspected illegal immigrant in custody would be subject to the withholding of state funds and state-authorized federal funds.

“Georgia law already prohibits sanctuary cities,” state Rep. Houston Gaines, R-Athens, told his House colleagues before Thursday’s vote. “House Bill 1105 will make sure sanctuary policies don’t get rooted in our local governments.”

“We have the greatest border crisis in our nation’s history,” added Rep. Jesse Petrea, R-Savannah, the bill’s chief sponsor. “Millions are entering our country illegally. We don’t know who they are.”

But Rep. Stacey Evans, D-Atlanta, said the legislation would force local law enforcement agencies to focus their efforts on ferreting out illegal immigrants instead of allowing them to concentrate on those committing violent crimes regardless of their nationality.

“It’s stepping on the hands of law enforcement (agencies) who are trying to deal with high crime,” she said.

Other opponents argued the legislation would lead to racial profiling of the sort that would discourage law-abiding citizens with brown skin or foreign accents from coming forward to report criminal activity,

“Fewer people scared of being suspected of anything are going to ‘see something, say something,’ ” said Rep. Marvin Lim, D-Norcross.

The bill now moves to the Georgia Senate.