Attorney Ashleigh Merchant testifies before senate committee investigating Fani Willis

Attorney Ashley Merchant testified for more than 3 hours Wednesday before the Georgia Senate Special Committee on Investigations in Fulton County.

The committee, led by Republican Sen. Bill Cowsert, was formed to investigate allegations against Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis after a defendant in the Georgia election interference case filed a motion in early January.

Merchant represents that defendant, Michael Roman. She was subpoenaed by the committee to testify about how she learned of the relationship between Willis and Special Prosecutor Nathan Wade and to explain why she and her client believe Willis and Wade benefited from prosecuting the case against former President Trump and his co-defendants.

Merchant told the committee that she began investigating because of "financial irregularities."

Merchant described Fulton County's unusual practice of hiring outside counsel for many cases. According to Merchant, none of the other district attorney's offices in the state, except the Attorney General's office, regularly use special prosecutors. In the few instances where she found that outside counsel was hired, they were paid at a much lower rate than what Wade was paid by Fulton County. 

Merchant went into details about Wade's billing method during the investigation, which she found unusual. Wade would use vague block billing, which contained multiple listings for "team meetings", instead of billing in minutes, which is the standard practice by most public and private lawyers. 

Merchant noted that the other prosecutors, John Floyd and Anna Cross, submitted itemized invoices and were paid significantly less than Wade, who received approximately $700,000 for his work. Cross received less than $100,000 and Floyd received even less, Merchant said. 

Merchant then explained how she discovered the relationship between Willis and Wade, initially hearing it from people "in the community" who were surprised that Willis hired someone she was dating. She detailed her meeting and multiple text messages and phone calls with Wade's former friend and law partner, Terrence Bradley, who disclosed details about their relationship and trips. Merchant told the committee that Bradley was displeased with how Wade treated his wife when he began his affair with Willis. 

The committee also inquired about the cellular data submitted by Merchant as evidence. Merchant explained the CellHawk program their investigator used and suggested that Willis could have used the county's Cellbrite program, which collects the contents of text messages, to prove her innocence.

Additionally, the committee asked about meetings Willis and Wade may have had with the White House about the investigation. Wade submitted at least two invoices that indicated meetings with White House counsel. 

Minority Whip Harold Jones questioned Merchant's motives, stating insufficient proof against Willis. Merchant and Jones also debated the meaning of conflict of interest and whether the money spent on trips by Wade or Willis could be considered extravagant. Additionally, Merchant clarified Roman's exclusion from the grand jury's original list and addressed an accusation that she was the one hoping to make money off of the case. 

The hearing concluded with Sen. Cowsert expressing concern over Willis' involvement in the "Find the Votes" book. The committee plans to reconvene in a couple of weeks, potentially calling Merchant again. The committee doesn't have the authority to bring charges against Willis, but it can recommend changes to the law that governs the operations of the district attorney's office. 

Live blog below

9:08 a.m.: Ashleigh Merchant is introducing herself and telling the committee a little about herself and her background as an attorney.

9:11 a.m.: Merchant is being asked who she represents. She explains that she represents Michael Roman and she began working on his case in late August 2023. Merchant explains what Roman is charged with in the Georgia election interference case.

9:13 a.m.: Merchant is asked about the documents submitted to the court and asked if she has any concerns. She says no, except maybe some things that should remain private like phone numbers etc.

9:14 a.m.: Merchant is now being asked about the discovery process.

9:16 a.m.:  Cowsert points out that it is not the intent of the committee to interfere in any way with the criminal cases against former President Trump and his co-defendants.

9:22 a.m.: Merchant is now being asked about the hiring of Special Prosecutor Nathan Wade and his role. Merchant is asked if hiring a special prosecutor is unusual and Merchant explains that it is.

9:25 a.m.:  Cowsert says they want to explore the usage of a special prosecutor or outside counsel. Merchant says she did an open records request for every district attorney in the state to try and find the answer to this question. Merchant says that "nobody does this" on a regular basis except Fulton County besides the Attorney General's office. Merchant says Fulton County has hired numerous lawyers to assist with cases in Fulton County and to deal with the backlog of cases in Fulton County.

9:39 a.m.: The committee is asking Merchant questions about how many people Fani Willis hired in September 2021 to help with cases and how much money she requested from the county to pay for the outside counsel. Merchant says Willis requested money to hire 55 lawyers. Merchant is then asked if there was a request to pay for a special prosecutor for the Georgia election interference case. Merchant says she was told there was not. She was told that Willis could use the money she was given to hire the additional people to hire however many she wanted for any case.

9:45 a.m.: They are now discussing how much Wade has been paid. Merchant says he has been paid approximately $700,000 at a rate of $250 per hour. Merchant says Wade would submit an invoice to Willis and Willis would sign off on it and send it to Purchasing to pay.

9:49 a.m.: Merchant is asked if Willis would have been able to hire Wade and she answers no because of the county's nepotism rules. She is also asked how much Wade would have made if he was hired and she answers around $175,000 a year. Merchant also points out that by hiring Wade as a special prosecutor, he could also maintain his private practice, which would be additional income.

9:51 a.m.: The committee is asking Merchant to weigh in on how Wade billed his time spent working on the Georgia election case. She says it is very unusual. She says the majority of the billings are for team meetings and does not give much identification about what work was done. She also explains that she did an open records request to find out if Wade had a badge to get into the Fulton County offices and it appears that he did not.

9:56 a.m.: Merchant is asked if Wade has any expertise that would make him more qualified to investigate the Georgia election case vs. the head of Fulton County's anti-corruption division, Sonya Allen. Merchant says no, but she points out that Allen once hired Wade for a case in Cobb County to investigate the deaths of predominantly Black inmates in Cobb County.

10:01 a.m.: They are now discussing the other special counsel members assigned to the election case. Merchant is giving information on John Floyd and Anna Cross. Merchant says the hiring of Floyd and Cross makes sense to her. Merchant is asked if she reviewed how much they were paid. Merchant says yes and there was a stark contrast. Floyd was paid $150 an hour and he provided itemized invoices. Cross was paid $250 an hour and also provided itemized invoices. Merchant says Floyd and Cross received much less than Wade during the investigation -- Cross received under $100,000. She's not sure about Floyd but thinks it was less than Cross.

10:06 a.m.: Merchant is asked why she sought the records about the billing. Merchant says she was accused of singling out Wade and she wanted to prove that she was not.

10:08 a.m.: The committee now wants to look at the meetings with the White House counsel and meeting in Athens.

10:10 a.m.: Merchant is asked if she has reason to suspect that Willis and/or Wade was coordinating with the White House during the investigation into the election interference case. Merchant says there was a lot of stuff in the evidence about Jan. 6 and she's not sure where they got all that stuff but she doesn't go as far as to accuse Willis and Wade of working with the Biden administration.

10:12 a.m.: The committee is taking a break.

10:35 a.m.: The committee is still asking Merchant questions about Wade's billings and what work he may have done for the investigation. Merchant is explaining that he had monthly caps on his first contract, which was Nov. 1, 2021, to Oct. 31, 2022, and that when he signed a new contract, the caps were significantly higher. Merchant says he almost always hit the cap each month and he always used block billing, meaning he did not itemize and specify what he did. When asked if Wade has a current contract, Merchant answers yes but she hasn't seen any invoices submitted recently.

10:40 a.m.: The committee is asking about Wade's qualifications. They ask Merchant if Wade had ever prosecuted a felony case before the election case, Merchant answers no.

10:45 a.m.: Sen.  Cowsert is asking about Roman's motion. Merchant said it was mostly because of the relationship between Willis and Wade but says it was also because Willis did not obtain county approval to hire Wade. Merchant says that it appears Willis has never sought approval to hire anyone. Merchant also points out that Wade did not file an oath of office. Merchant explains that only sworn officers are allowed to be in the room with a grand jury. She says they did find out later that he took an oath but no one filed it.

10:50 a.m.: Sen.  Cowsert points out part of the oath is to not knowingly receive, directly or indirectlym, any money or other valuable thing for the performance or non-performance of any act or duty pertaining to the office. Merchant confirms both Willis and Wade took the oath.

10:51 a.m.: Merchant is asked how she found out about the relationship. Merchant says she first heard about it from people "in the community" who were surprised he was hired because of the relationship.

10:53 a.m.:  Cowsert goes back to the billing for a moment. He asks Merchant if there's any evidence that Floyd and Cross ever noted that they were in team meetings at the same time that Wade did. Merchant said she did not find that.

10:54 a.m.: Merchant begins talking about Terrence Bradley. Merchant says she had submitted multiple open records requests and Willis apparently called Bradley to warn him. Merchant says Bradley reached out to her and she told him that she could not help him at that time. Merchant ran into him soon after in September 2023 and that is when Bradley allegedly told her the details about relationship between Wade and Willis. Merchant says Bradley did not like the Wade had treated his wife. Bradley reportedly told Merchant about Wade's contracts and about how Wade and Willis would meet at hotels and a condo belonging to Willis' "bestie."

11:01 a.m.: The committee puts images of the text messages between Bradley and Merchant onscreen.

11:02 a.m.: Merchant is explaining how Willis hired a company to monitor her public image through media monitoring.

11:05 a.m.: Merchant is talking about some of the trips that Wade and Willis took together and how she went about obtaining the records for those trips. Merchant explains that Willis' name often appeared on statements etc.

11:07 a.m.:  Cowsert calls Merchant "a good investigative reporter." Merchant explains that she often did have the money on a case to hire a private investigator so she learned how to do it herself.

11:10 a.m.: Merchant is now talking about the cellular data that indicated Wade was in Hapeville more than 30 times. Merchant explains how CellHawk works to establish geofences and how phones will ping off towers within those geofences. When asked if these visits were before Nov. 1, 2021, Merchant says yes.

11:14 a.m.: Merchant tells the committee that Fulton County has a program called Cellbrite, which will collect all the information about text messages and phone calls, at their disposal. Merchant says that if Willis and Wade wanted to prove that their communications were innocent, they could have used Cellbrite in their defense.

11:15 a.m.:  Cowsert asks Merchant how she got the number of texts and phone calls and Merchant says she was able to get the number through an open records request. She just couldn't get the contents. When asked about the state's response, Merchant points out that Fulton County is currently using cellular data in a similar way in the Young Thug RICO case.

11:22 a.m.:  Cowsert asks Merchant if she sent a copy of the motion to Bradley. Merchant says yes and says that Bradley said that everything looked good.

11:26 a.m.:  Cowsert asks Merchant why Bradley didn't want anyone know that he was his source. Merchant replies that she didn't want to reveal her source until she was forced to do so. Merchant says that Bradley was problem concerned because of Willis' position and what others would think. Merchant admits that she didn't particularly want to file a motion against the DA.

11:30 a.m.:  Cowsert asks Merchant about the original list of people who were recommended to be indicted and why some of them were cut and some were added. Merchant points out that her client -- Michael Roman -- wasn't on the original list from the special grand jury.

11:38 a.m.: Merchant brings up the speech at the hitoric Black church on Martin Luther King Jr. weekend. Merchant also says Willis has made multiple comments in public and in court about how the defendants in the Georgia election interference case are guilty. Merchant says that is inappropriate. Merchant also says Willis called her and her client racist. Additionally, Merchant brings up the book that Willis was interviewed for extensively. Merchant also says that Willis claims that God told her to prosecute the case and in her opinion, that is unethical.

11:41 a.m.:  Cowsert is asking Merchant about Willis' testimony during the two-day hearing for Roman's motion.  Cowsert asks Merchant what the penalty is if it is found that Willis and/or Wade committed perjury. Merchant says it is a felony and they would lose their licenses.

11:44 a.m.:  Cowsert says he is puzzled by actual impropriety and appearance of impropriety. Merchant attends to provide an example by explaining how Willis would supposedly reimburse Wade with "campaign funds" supplemented by money she got from Publix.

11:50 a.m.: Sen. Harold Jones is now asking questions. Jones says he wants to go back to the issue of conflict and asks why Merchant brought up the oath issue again. Merchant explains that she was trying to paint the entire picture and felt that it was relevant to show how they were hiding things about their relationship.

Jones brings up the case of Whitworth v. Morgan and accuses Merchant of having a conflict of interest herself. Jones says Merchant is the lawyer who wants to make money off the case. Jones says her client was offered the chance to plead guilty to a misdemeanor and Merchant refused.

Merchant answers that the case could have been broken into 3 different cases that could have been handled fairly quickly instead of one case that could last for a year or more. Merchant says that the deal was not that Roman could enter a plea and he was done. He could still be tied up for a year because of the case.

12:08 p.m.: Jones asks Merchant what she thinks about Wade's qualifications. Merchant replies that there is no opponent or judge or jury when asking questions of a special grand jury and there was a team of lawyers.

12:13 p.m.: Jones asks Merchant about the trips and how much they cost. They are now going through the list of trips and the costs. Jones asks if the costs are unusual. Merchant and Jones then begin to argue about how much average Americans spend on vacations and whether these trips were extravagant.

12:19 p.m.: Jones asks Merchant to explain why there is a conflict. Merchant replies that if Willis had been honest about the relationship upfront and said she wanted to hire Wade because he was brilliant, they they wouldn't be there. Jones asks Merchant how if that were the case, the conflict of interest would no longer exist. Merchant says that if Willis had informed the county of the relationship, Wade would never have been appointed to the case. Jones wants Merchant to point to the case law that says that would have happened.

12:25 p.m.: Jones brings up the Whitworth case again. Merchant says the big difference between that case and the current case is because the conflict of interest issue came up post conviction. In this instance, the Georgia election case has not gone to trial yet.

12:27 p.m.: Cowsert says the next meeting will be in the next couple of weeks and Merchant may have to return.

12:30 p.m.: Cowsert clarifies that the conflict of interest alleged by Merchant and Roman is the conduct between Willis and Wade and the appearance that Willis received gifts of more than $100.

12:32 p.m.: Cowsert says he is troubled by the Find the Votes book and asks Merchant if Willis violated any rules by talking to the authors of the book. Cowsert asks Merchant if Willis is making any money off the book and Merchant replies that she does not know. 


Attorney Ashleigh Merchant speaks during a hearing in the case of the State of Georgia v. Donald John Trump at the Fulton County Courthouse on February 27, 2024 in Atlanta, Georgia. Witness and attorney Terrence Bradley testified as Judge McAfee cons

How it began

On Jan. 8, Merchant filed a motion on the behalf of Roman seeking to disqualify the DA’s office from the case due to an alleged "improper" romantic relationship between Willis and Wade. The court filing stated that because Wade paid for trips they took together, Willis benefited financially from the arrangement.

Willis, an elected Democrat, hired Wade in November 2021 to assist with her investigation into efforts to overturn the 2020 election in Georgia. Since a Fulton County grand jury returned an indictment against former President Donald Trump and 18 others in August 2023, Wade has led the team of lawyers assembled by Willis to prosecute the case. Wade has been paid more than $650,000 for his work on the election interference case.

During a speech over Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend at a historic Black church in Atlanta, Willis defended hiring Wade, whom some suggested did not have the needed experience for the case, and suggested racism was behind the attacks on her judgment and Wade's qualifications.

Timeline of Fulton County DA Fani Willis - Nathan Wade relationship

On Jan. 25, Trump joined Roman's motion to remove Willis and Wade from the case, focusing on Willis' speech at the church on Jan. 14. Although Willis and Wade initially kept silent about the status of their relationship, Willis confirmed a romantic relationship with Wade in a 176-page court-ordered response on Feb. 2.

Where things are now

A two-day hearing on Roman's motion took place on Feb. 15 and 16. During the hearing, both Willis and Wade denied their relationship began before Wade was hired as a special prosecutor. They insisted that they shared the costs associated with their relationship, with Willis giving Wade cash whenever he paid for tickets or other expenses.

Willis and Wade have also denied benefiting financially from the prosecution of the 2020 election interference case. Fulton County's attorney, Adam Abbate, pointed out that if Willis were trying to cash in, she would not have asked the judge to schedule a trial as soon as possible. Additionally, she would have indicted all 39 people the special grand jury indicted and appointed Wade to larger cases in the office.

The star witness for Roman and Merchant, former Wade friend and attorney Terrence Bradley, turned out to be anything but a smoking gun on the witness stand. During the initial two-day hearing, he claimed attorney-client privilege. During a follow-up hearing, he either could not recall certain things or claimed he was simply speculating.

The only evidence at this time that Bradley may have known more than he admitted in court about the relationship is a series of text messages exchanged with Merchant during the preparation of the motion filed on behalf of Michael Roman. In those text message, Bradley appears to confirm when the relationship began and approved the motion before it was filed. 

The attorneys for former President Donald Trump sought to introduce cellphone data that would prove Willis and Wade were in a relationship before 2022 and that Wade visited Willis' home in Hapeville approximately 35 times. However, Willis' team responded, stating that the records are mistaken, and Wade was often in the area for other reasons.

Judge Scott McAfee, presiding over the 2020 election interference case and its associated hearings, said on March 1 that he would likely rule within two weeks on Roman's motion.

Other investigations

The Senate committee is not the only one investigating Willis and Wade. The Fulton County Board of Ethics is scheduled to hear two ethics complaints against Willis on March 7. 

Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene has also filed ethics complaints against both Willis and Wade, and the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary is also investigating both Willis and Wade.

What could happen

Even if Willis is not disqualified from the case, it seems unlikely the case against Trump and the remaining co-defendants will go forward in August because of the amount of time that has been spent the last two months on the relationship between Willis and Wade. 

Additionally, the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in April on whether the former president is immune from criminal prosecution. Trump has also filed a similar claim in Fulton County, and Judge McAfee will likely wait until the Supreme Court issues their ruling before making his decision.

There are also other motions under consideration that would need to be settled before a trial could begin. 

If Willis is disqualified, it would mean her entire team is disqualified. In that case, the Prosecuting Attorneys Council of Georgia would need to find another district attorney in the state to take on the case.

The Georgia case is just one of four criminal prosecutions that Trump is facing.