I’m not one to toot my own horn, but I am going to now because I am proud of my team! Earlier this year I was honored to receive an award from State Auditor Keith Faber. This award is titled the Public Integrity Award and recognized my efforts during an investigation that has led to the indictments in a high-profile case that is still pending. I was proud to accept the award on behalf of my team at the office who work tirelessly every day to serve you, our community, with integrity and who work always to seek the truth and to do the right thing.
You can imagine my dismay and utter shock at the allegations surrounding the Fulton County, Georgia district attorney. In Georgia, a district attorney is the same as an elected prosecutor like myself. This particular prosecutor brought the criminal indictments against President Trump and others for alleged interference in the 2020 presidential election. The allegations against Fulton County, Georgia District Attorney Fani T. Willis include that she is alleged to have or had an intimate relationship with a special prosecutor, Mr. Wade.
Willis hired Wade to conduct the investigation and prosecution of the 2020 election probe. Willis has paid (through her office) Wade nearly $650,000 as special prosecutor. It has also been alleged in various news sources that Willis personally profited from this relationship as Mr. Wade paid for Willis to go on vacation with him while collecting a taxpayer-funded pay check at the same time. It screams like an episode of Real Housewives from Atlanta, and it leaves me embarrassed and ashamed as an elected prosecutor for this district attorney’s actions, if true, and the undeniable impact on the field of prosecution, and the public’s trust of our criminal justice as a whole.
Fulton County, Georgia, is where the city of Atlanta sits, so you can imagine how big of a population and geographic location Ms. Willis is charged to protect and for which she must seek justice. At a glimpse, the Fulton County, Georgia district attorney’s website gives the impression of a professional office. You can read Ms. Willis’ bio and the bios of her leadership team are also on the website with the first line, “Integrity Matters!” right above Ms. Willis’ picture.
The use of special prosecutors by elected district attorneys or prosecutors is common, and there is nothing untoward about using a special prosecutor. In Ohio, the process for an elected prosecutor to request or appoint (the legal term) a special prosecutor is pretty easy. The elected prosecutor files a motion and affidavit with the common pleas court stating the reasons why a special prosecutor is needed. Primarily, a special prosecutor is needed if there is a conflict of interest or if an investigation is too big or complicated for the prosecutor’s office to handle alone. The common pleas judge then examines the request and decides whether or not to grant it. If the judge does grant our request, then a named person is appointed as a special prosecutor in a particular case and that person has the full authority that the elected prosecutor has moving forward in a particular matter. The special prosecutor can bring or dismiss charges. The special prosecutor can convene a grand jury or close a case without prosecution, and the special prosecutor can investigate crimes and can conduct trials.
It is the common practice for special prosecutors to be appointed without compensation. If I need a special prosecutor, I generally start with other elected prosecutors in our geographic area to see if they would be willing to act as a special prosecutor on my behalf. If they are not able to for whatever reason, I will also ask the Ohio Attorney General’s Office to step in. In my nearly five years as your county prosecutor, I’ve never paid a special prosecutor to act on my behalf. I’ve also acted as special prosecutor for other counties when they’ve requested me — and I’ve served without compensation from that county.
So you can imagine my face when I read that Willis’ office paid nearly $650,000 to Wade, the special prosecutor that she appointed to investigate President Trump and others. More than half a million of taxpayer dollars! I can’t believe it! If you get paid as a special prosecutor, it begs the question, the more you work as a special prosecutor, the more you could get paid. What is the motivation to work efficiently and justly as a special prosecutor if you’re getting paid?
I don’t fault Ms. Willis for using a special prosecutor for what I am sure is a massive investigation and undertaking and one fraught with potential conflicts of interest. In fact, that is when prosecutors should use a special prosecutor, when there is a conflict of interest or an investigation is just too large and overwhelming for our offices to handle with all of our competing job duties. An example of a conflict of interest would be if a family member of mine or one of my staff members was a victim of a crime or accused of a crime — my office could not handle that prosecution ethically and would request a special prosecutor. When we step into the courtroom as prosecutors, there should be no appearance of impropriety to the public or to the parties, both victims and accused alike. An appearance of impropriety is anything that could suggest partiality, bias, prejudice or unjust motivation. A special prosecutor is commonly requested, too, for investigations that are multi-faceted and large scale.
Paying the special prosecutor more than half a million dollars may be weird to me, but it probably isn’t wrong. However, that isn’t the end of the allegations as I mentioned earlier. In the most basic terms, it appears the Fulton County, Georgia district attorney may have hired her boyfriend to be a special prosecutor or the special prosecutor became her boyfriend at some point. And while the special prosecutor is being paid with taxpayer dollars to investigate and prosecute our country’s biggest election probe to date, the special prosecutor pays for the district attorney to go on vacation with him. What in the world? So much for the “Integrity Matters” slogan on the Fulton County DA’s website — it is beginning to sound a lot like witch hunt.
In a few weeks, there will be court hearings regarding these allegations, and, who knows, maybe after the hearings these allegations will be proven to be false. But the cynic in me thinks not since neither the special prosecutor nor the district attorney have outright denied the allegations yet. Even if the allegations are proven to be false, the damage is done. The questions surrounding this prosecution are now many and the appearance of impropriety has destroyed any credibility this prosecution may have had. Perhaps even worse, these allegations have destroyed the very faith in our justice system that we as prosecutors ask our citizens to have every single day.
The behavior of the Fulton County district attorney embarrasses my profession and the integrity of the criminal justice system. The victims and the accused in this criminal prosecution deserve an apology from the district attorney, and someone should step in who is ultimately committed to the real truth because integrity matters.
Melissa A. Schiffel is the Delaware County prosecutor.