Fani Willis aggressively investigates Trump in Georgia’s Fulton County

Fani Willis, the district attorney of Fulton County, Ga., finds herself at the center of an election inquiry with the potential to both make history and influence the course of the next presidential vote. (David Walter Banks for The Washington Post)

The Fulton County district attorney’s aggressive pursuit of Trump and his allies could soon lead to criminal charges

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ATLANTA — Standardized test scores in Atlanta public schools were going up, but the explanation in dozens of schools was not necessarily that students were learning more. Investigators found that teachers were systematically cheating, motivated by incentives to demonstrate improved results.

To Fani Willis, a prosecutor in the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office, it was a criminal conspiracy on a vast scale.

Using Georgia’s expansive anti-racketeering law — a statute traditionally used against drug dealers, gang leaders and mafia figures — she and her colleagues won guilty pleas from 21 educators and the convictions of 11 others in 2015 for accepting bonuses and other rewards while students suffered, losing access to remedial education. The episode, which ended with teachers and administrators sentenced to prison, continues to divide the city.

Now Willis is considering using the racketeering statute in another sprawling, politically treacherous investigation. The question this time is whether a former president, Donald Trump, conspired with his allies to break the law and attempt to overturn the 2020 election. Willis, Fulton County’s district attorney, finds herself at the center of an inquiry with the potential to make history and influence the course of the next presidential vote.

A special grand jury convened as part of the investigation has completed its work and submitted a report that could include recommendations for charges, a judge announced Monday. The judge scheduled a Jan. 24 hearing to determine whether to release the report publicly. Willis could file charges in the case in the coming weeks.

Willis launched her investigation after reports that Trump called the Georgia secretary of state on Jan. 2, 2021, and pressed him to “find” additional votes to overturn Joe Biden’s victory in the state. It has since expanded to examine other alleged attempts by Trump allies to interfere with the democratic process in Georgia. The inquiry is separate from Justice Department investigations — now overseen by a special counsel — into the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, and classified documents that Trump stored at Mar-a-Lago, his home and private club in Florida.

The status of key investigations involving Donald Trump

Willis’s aggressive and high-profile pursuit of the case — which has included forcing top-tier Trump insiders to testify before a grand jury, and potentially subpoenaing the former president himself — has prompted criticism that she has exceeded her mandate as a local prosecutor. The numerous other inquiries into Trump are being pursued by federal or state-level authorities who have often worked more quietly than the Fulton district attorney.

But those who know her well are not surprised: Willis’s strategy, they say, reflects the nature of a prosecutor who is unafraid to investigate sensitive or seemingly untouchable targets.

“She is a pit bull,” said Vince Velazquez, who served for 17 years as a homicide detective in Atlanta, working frequently with Willis. “If I committed a crime I would not want to be prosecuted by Fani Willis.”

Observers say the threat to Trump is real and immediate, and that the Fulton investigation could make him the first sitting or former president to be indicted on criminal charges. Willis has said she is considering subpoenaing Trump and has notified at least 18 others that they are “targets” and could face indictment.

“The allegations are very serious,” Willis told The Washington Post. “If indicted and convicted, people are facing prison sentences.”

Trump, who announced a third consecutive run for the presidency in November, has said Willis is on a “witch hunt.” He accused the Democrat of ignoring Atlanta’s rising crime rate while “attempting to prosecute a very popular president.”

Some of those Willis has called as witnesses have claimed she is guided more by partisan politics and a desire to be in the spotlight than a sense of justice. Willis emphatically disagrees, and her backers note that she has repeatedly shown herself willing to tackle misdeeds committed by people across the political spectrum.

Some of Willis’s actions have suggested to critics that she’s not overly concerned by the appearance of partisanship.

The judge overseeing the case disqualified Willis from investigating Burt Jones — a state senator who was a Trump elector in 2020 — because the district attorney hosted a fundraiser for Jones’s eventual opponent in the lieutenant governor’s race. (Jones won that race.) Judge Robert McBurney called Willis’s participation in the fundraiser a case of “horrific” optics and a “ ‘What are you thinking?’ moment.”

Lawyers for 11 other would-be Trump electors have cited alleged political bias in seeking to have her disqualified from investigating their clients — a move rejected by the judge. Willis, in turn, has asked the judge to remove the electors’ attorneys for their own alleged ethical breaches in representing so many clients simultaneously. (The judge delivered a mixed ruling in November, which the electors’ attorneys have sought to appeal.)

In addition to the electors, Willis has sought testimony from the state’s most prominent GOP officials, including Gov. Brian Kemp, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, Attorney General Christopher M. Carr and numerous state lawmakers.

She has successfully forced Rudy Giuliani, one of the most outspoken advocates of the former president’s false claims about a rigged 2020 vote, to appear before the grand jury. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) testified after unsuccessfully fighting a subpoena all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Former national security adviser Michael Flynn appeared before the panel in December after losing his own court fight.

Willis also won a legal battle to secure testimony from former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, who was ordered to appear before the grand jury in December — though it’s unclear whether he did because the proceedings are secret. (A spokesman for Meadows declined to comment, as did a spokesman for Willis.)

The Georgia criminal investigation into Trump and his allies, explained

When lawyers for Kemp, the Georgia governor, suggested in an August court filing that Willis’s 2020 election interference investigation was becoming its own form of election interference in 2022, Willis responded harshly.

“Let’s discuss the ways you are wrong: This is NOT a politically motivated investigation. It is a criminal investigation,” Willis wrote in a letter to Kemp’s team. She sought Kemp’s testimony as a witness, not a target.

The case went quiet during the homestretch of the midterm election. But afterward, Willis began making moves publicly again, bringing prominent witnesses such as Kemp, Flynn, Graham and former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson before the grand jury.

The priority she has placed on the case comes in part, she said, from her belief in the basic role of the state.

“The government has only two responsibilities if you live in a democracy,” she said in an interview in her Atlanta office, where the walls are decorated with quotes from historical figures, including Malcolm X, and the phrase “integrity matters” is ubiquitous. “The number one thing that needs to happen in a free society is that you’ve got to keep people safe. The second thing in a free country is the importance of the right to vote.”

Willis’s path to becoming a prosecutor began on the other side of the courtroom, watching her father, a single parent and defense lawyer in Washington who frequently took his young daughter with him to D.C. Superior Court.

By age 8 she was organizing her father’s homicide case files.

“I’m sure there’s something not right about that,” Willis said with a laugh.

Her father, John Floyd, was once a member of the Black Panther party and continues to have a profound influence on his daughter, despite political differences that place him well to her left. Floyd recalled the day at D.C. Superior Court when Judge Joseph M. Hannon invited young Fani to join him on the dais. She stood by the judge, leaning over the railing, elbows out as the judge arraigned multiple defendants.

“I’m going to be a judge when I grow up,” she told her father as they left the courthouse.

“Well, first you have to be a lawyer,” Floyd responded.

After graduating from Howard University and then Emory University School of Law, Willis spent a few years in private practice before joining the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office in 2001.

Over the nearly two decades that followed, she handled hundreds of murder cases and was known for her ability to establish a rapport with jurors and witnesses, while responding harshly to those she saw as impeding a case. She rehearsed her arguments incessantly, colleagues recall, and had a flare for the dramatic.

In a case in which the defendants had attempted to clean up blood evidence before police arrived, she brought in an odorous bucket of bleach to remind jurors of the cover up.

Willis, 51, frequently cites her experience in murder, domestic abuse, rape and child molestation cases.

“I’ve watched people do horrible things,” she said. “And there’s just no other way around it: They need to go to prison. They need to remain in prison.”

Her tough approach won her friends among police and investigators.

“She educated me,” said Richard Randolph, a former homicide detective who now serves as a principal investigator for the district attorney. He recalled his first murder case, in which he thought he had prepared everything properly.

“She told me ‘no, you didn’t do this, this, this and this,’ ” Randolph said. He and other former detectives recalled Willis calling at all hours to press for details in advance of a trial. One afternoon, she asked him to help protect witnesses who were in danger after a shooting rampage in one of the city’s most troubled neighborhoods.

He and Willis went to the crime scene that night and, among other things, helped a witness’s family move to new quarters in a safer part of the city.

Willis said meeting the families of crime victims is a fundamental part of her job and that it motivates her.

“When you’re in the rooms with those mothers the pain is palpable,” she said. “Like, literally, you can feel their pain with them.”

Unwavering amid criticism

Former colleagues say Willis was similarly moved by the stories of the students whose test results were altered.

The case had its origins in 2008, when the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published an analysis showing improbable gains by students in standardized tests. A state investigation was followed by one initiated by then-Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard, focused on possible cheating in Atlanta public schools.

The prosecution of mostly Black Atlanta educators was controversial at the time and continues to draw criticism.

In an op-ed published before her election in 2020, two prominent Atlanta defense lawyers, Sam Starks and Jonathan Rapping, said Willis played a role “in engineering a grave injustice” in the school case.

The two lawyers, both former public defenders, called the case “a textbook example of overcriminalization and prosecutorial discretion gone amok, compounded by an unjust sentence of first-time offenders to serve years in prison.”

One of the defense attorneys in the case, Bob Rubin, offered praise for Willis’s legal skills but said he holds an equally dim view of the decision to prosecute school personnel under a statute originally intended to put organized crime bosses behind bars.

“They weren’t criminals,” Rubin said of the educators. “They were good people who dedicated their lives to these kids” but got caught up in the testing pressures encouraged by the state and federal government.

Willis defends the prosecution of the schools case in strong terms.

“It was one of the worst cases of Black-on-Black crime in history,” Willis said after the trial. Willis admirers cite the case as an example of her no-nonsense approach to enforcing the law, her ability to connect with jurors, endure intense criticism and explain complex legal theories.

Standing before the jury during opening statements in September 2014, Willis explained that the Georgia racketeering law does not require prosecutors to show a premeditated conspiracy with “a formal sit-down dinner meeting where you eat spaghetti.”

“What you do have to do is all be doing the same thing for the same purpose,” she said. “You all have to be working toward that same goal.”

In 2020, Willis ran for district attorney, taking on Howard, her former mentor, who had promoted her repeatedly and asked her to help lead the prosecution of the schools case. She argued to voters that Howard was corrupt and had let the office atrophy. She won.

Willis took office on Jan. 1, 2021. Two days later came news reports that Trump had called Raffensperger and pressed him to “find” additional votes to overturn Joe Biden’s victory in the state. The call was first reported by The Post.

The next day, Raffensperger appeared on ABC’s “Good Morning America” and suggested that Atlanta’s new district attorney might investigate the call.

Before the show was over Willis was on the phone with a top adviser, Jeff DiSantis, a lawyer and newly named assistant district attorney who was once executive director of the Georgia Democratic Party.

Willis said she “instantly understood” that if the phone call had taken place in Fulton County, she would have no choice but to pursue the matter. “It was serious enough that it needed to be looked at,” she said.

A month later, Willis announced that her office had launched a criminal investigation of possible election interference. The calls from Trump and others could fall under a Georgia law prohibiting “criminal solicitation to commit election fraud.”

Other statutes that might apply, according to the district attorney: making false statements, conspiracy, threatening elections administrators and racketeering.

Since Willis took office, use of the Georgia Racketeer Influenced and Corruption Organizations (RICO) statute in Fulton County has exploded.

“I have right now more RICO indictments in the last 18 months, 20 months, than were probably done in the last 10 years out of this office,” she said, praising the utility of the state statute.

The law “allows you to tell jurors the full story,” Willis said.

Making sense of the Trump investigations

Georgia’s law, passed in 1980, is broader than the federal RICO statute. The state law has provisions — like those in about 20 other states — that give prosecutors more flexibility to bring charges based on a long list of state and federal crimes and that can be used to establish a pattern of prohibited activity. The statute includes stiff penalties, up to 20 years.

Last year, she relied on Georgia’s racketeering law to prosecute dozens of people suspected of involvement in gang activity. The inquiry has drawn public complaints in part because Willis insists on using the lyrics of indicted local rap artists to prosecute the complex conspiracy case.

To Willis, there was never any question.

“If you decide to admit your crimes over a beat,” Willis said at a news conference, “I’m going to use it.”

Holly Bailey contributed to this report from Atlanta.

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