As Trump Inquiry Continues, Republicans Seek Oversight of Georgia Prosecutors
ATLANTA — To Fani T. Willis, the district attorney in Atlanta, several bills in the Georgia legislature that would make it easier to remove local prosecutors are racist and perhaps retaliatory for her ongoing investigation of former President Donald J. Trump.
To the Republican sponsors of the bills, they are simply a way to ensure that prosecutors enforce the laws of the state, whether they agree with them or not.
Two of the measures under consideration would create a new state oversight board that could punish or remove prosecutors for loosely defined reasons, including “willful misconduct.” A third would sharply reduce the number of signatures required to seek a recall of a district attorney.
The proposals are part of a broader push by conservative lawmakers around the country to rein in prosecutors whom they consider too liberal, and who in some cases are refusing to prosecute low-level drug crimes or enforce strict new anti-abortion laws.
Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida last year suspended a Democratic prosecutor in the Tampa area, Andrew Warren, after Mr. Warren said, among other things, that he would not prosecute anyone seeking abortions. The Republican-controlled Pennsylvania House voted in November to impeach Larry Krasner, the liberal district attorney in Philadelphia. And a Republican-backed bill currently under consideration in the Indiana legislature would allow a special prosecuting attorney, appointed by the state attorney general, to step in if a local prosecutor is “categorically refusing to prosecute certain crimes.”
The debate in Georgia unfolding amid mounting concerns over urban crime, particularly in Atlanta. But Ms. Willis has been a centrist law-and-order prosecutor who has targeted some prominent local rappers in a sprawling gang case. She is also part of the changing face of justice in Georgia: The state now has a record number of minority prosecutors — 14 of them — up from five in 2020, the year Ms. Willis, who is Black, was voted into office.
And of course, there is the Trump inquiry, the latest accelerant to the partisan conflagrations that have consumed the increasingly divided state for years. The subject of Ms. Willis’s investigation is whether Mr. Trump and his allies tried to flout Georgia’s democratic process with numerous instances of interference after his narrow 2020 election loss in the state.
Ms. Willis has said she is considering building a racketeering or conspiracy case. Anticipation is rising, particularly since the forewoman of a special grand jury charged with looking into the matter spoke publicly last month, saying that the jury’s final report, which is still largely under wraps, recommended indictments for more than a dozen people.
Ms. Willis must now decide whether to bring a case to a regular grand jury, which can issue indictments. A decision could come as early as May.
Understand Georgia’s Investigation of Election Interference
A legal threat to Trump. Fani T. Willis, the Atlanta area district attorney, has been investigating whether former President Donald J. Trump and his allies interfered with the 2020 election in Georgia. The case could be one of the most perilous legal problems for Mr. Trump. Here’s what to know:
Looking for votes. Prosecutors in Georgia opened their investigation in February 2021, just weeks after Mr. Trump made a phone call to Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s secretary of state, and urged him to “find” enough votes to overturn the results of the election there.
What are prosecutors looking at? In addition to Mr. Trump’s call to Mr. Raffensperger, Ms. Willis has homed in on a plot by Trump allies to send fake Georgia electors to Washington and misstatements about the election results made before the state legislature by Rudolph W. Giuliani, who spearheaded efforts to keep Mr. Trump in power as his personal lawyer. An election data breach in Coffee County, Ga., is also part of the investigation.
Who is under scrutiny? Mr. Giuliani has been told that he is a target of the investigation. Ms. Willis’s office has also warned some state officials — including David Shafer, the head of the Georgia Republican Party — and pro-Trump “alternate electors” that they could be indicted.
The potential charges. Experts say that Ms. Willis appears to be building a case that could target multiple defendants with charges of conspiracy to commit election fraud or racketeering-related charges for engaging in a coordinated scheme to undermine the election. The grand jury, which recently concluded its work, recommended indictments for multiple people, the forewoman of the jury said.
In the Republican-controlled legislature, as of Friday afternoon, the prospects seemed favorable for the bills creating an oversight committee. They were dimmer for the recall election bill, which would lower the number of registered voters required to sign a petition to prompt a recall of prosecutors from the current 30 percent, which is standard for local elected offices, to just 2 percent. The measure was introduced after some high-profile Trump supporters in Georgia promoted the idea of a recall campaign against Ms. Willis, even though such an effort would be unlikely to succeed in Fulton County, a Democratic stronghold.
Those supporters include United States Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, who tweeted in August that Ms. Willis was using taxpayer funds “for her personal political witch hunt against Pres Trump, but will NOT prosecute crime plaguing Atlanta!”
Ms. Willis, who first described the bills as racist in a State Senate hearing last month, repeated the accusation in an interview at her downtown Atlanta office this week, pointing out that the majority of Georgians now live within the jurisdictions of the 14 minority prosecutors.
“For the hundreds of years we’ve had prosecutors, this has been unnecessary,” Ms. Willis said, referring to the bills. “But now all of a sudden this is a priority. And it is racist.”
Lawmakers have fired back. At the hearing last month, State Senator Bill Cowsert, a Republican who is the brother-in-law of Gov. Brian Kemp, said, “For you to come in here and try to make this about racism, that this bill is directed at any district attorney or solicitor because of racism, is absurd, and it’s offensive, and it’s a racist statement on its own.”
Senator Brian Strickland, a Republican who was presiding over the meeting, told Ms. Willis, “You’re being emotional.”
Lawmakers have insisted the new legislative push is unrelated to the Trump investigation. In an interview this week, State Senator Randy Robertson, a Republican sponsoring one of the oversight panel bills, said the legislation was inspired by the case of Mark Jones, a prosecutor from Mr. Robertson’s district who was imprisoned in 2021 for public corruption.
“Leading up to that, everybody was kind of scrambling around, saying, ‘How do we — you know, this guy’s doing a terrible job, how do we get rid of him?’” said Mr. Robertson, adding that existing remedies were insufficient. “There was really no avenue for individuals to go to.”
But the burst of legislative support for such efforts is hard to disentangle from the Trump inquiry. Lieutenant Gov. Burt Jones, a Republican publicly supportive of the bills, has been told by Ms. Willis’s office that he is a target of its investigation; he was among a group of bogus pro-Trump Georgia electors who were part of a multistate plot to overturn President Biden’s victory.
Senator Cowsert, during his heated exchange with Ms. Willis last month, also indicated he had a particular case in mind. When Ms. Willis began explaining that she had been prioritizing gang prosecutions and violent offenders, Mr. Cowsert interjected, “That’s not what we’re reading in the paper you’re prosecuting.”
In a subsequent interview, Ms. Willis said: “I’m very curious. Maybe somebody wants to go ask him what one case he’s talking about. Because I have 20,000 cases in this office.”
Mr. Cowsert and Mr. Jones did not respond requests for comment.
If the proposals the legislature is considering are successful, the new oversight commission could be in place by early next year. If Mr. Trump were to be indicted, experts say his case would not necessarily be resolved by then.
Ms. Willis’s investigation has been the impetus for other actions by the legislature. Earlier this year, state lawmakers adopted new rules seeking to grant themselves greater immunity from testifying before bodies like the special grand jury, after a judge overseeing the Trump inquiry forced some lawmakers to appear before the body.
State Senator Brandon Beach, another Republican whom prosecutors have named as a target of the investigation, recently introduced a bill that would place new restrictions on the kinds of details that members of a grand jury may publicly share about their activities. The bill was filed after the forewoman of the special grand jury in the Trump inquiry, Emily Kohrs, gave a series of interviews in which she described some of the closed-door proceedings, albeit within boundaries set by the judge.
In the past, some Democratic state lawmakers embraced the idea of creating an oversight commission for prosecutors; they had been concerned about possible misconduct by prosecutors in the case of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was chased and murdered in 2020 by three white men in a South Georgia neighborhood. A Democrat introduced a bill in June 2020 that would have created such a commission, but it did not win support from the Republican leadership.
The new Republican-sponsored measure would create a panel of eight members, a mix of practicing lawyers and current and former prosecutors, with appointments controlled by the governor and other officeholders who are currently Republicans. The panel would also oversee solicitors general, who prosecute misdemeanors in some counties. 3f1
Some observers say Ms. Willis could face scrutiny from a new oversight panel over her office’s backlog of thousands of cases. But while the backlog has been the subject of criticism, Ms. Willis inherited it when she took office in January 2021; it is partly the result of the coronavirus pandemic, which has created backlogs in court systems around the United States.
Other prosecutors around the state are divided about the idea of an oversight commission. In February, 21 of the state’s 50 district attorneys wrote to the bills’ sponsors to express support, saying that they did not believe the bills threatened their discretion in determining when to file charges.
But Deborah Gonzalez, the district attorney for the Athens area, fears that the bills, if passed, would force her to prosecute cases not worth her time. Republicans have criticized Ms. Gonzalez, a liberal Democrat, in the past for not prosecuting certain crimes, including simple marijuana possession, and for signing a letter in June in which she, along with other prosecutors around the country, said they would “decline to use our offices’ resources to criminalize reproductive health decisions.”
“Instead of allowing me to use the limited resources I have on the most serious and violent cases that have the biggest impact on my community,” Ms. Gonzalez said, “I’m now going to have to focus limited resources and time and money and people to do everything.”
At the recent Senate hearing, Ms. Willis told lawmakers that rolling back prosecutorial discretion over when to bring charges would have broader consequences than they might imagine.
How many district attorneys, she asked them, “have prosecuted adultery?”
“That’s a law on the books,” she said.
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