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Meet the ‘badass’ lawyer who could blow up Trump racketeering case over Fani Willis’ sex secrets

meet-the-‘badass’-lawyer-who-could-blow-up-trump-racketeering-case-over-fani-willis’-sex-secrets
Meet the ‘badass’ lawyer who could blow up Trump racketeering case over Fani Willis’ sex secrets

Ashleigh Merchant never stops running — and that has embattled Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis running scared.

The “badass” Georgia criminal defense attorney, 46, who runs marathons in her spare time, will be front and center at a hearing in Atlanta Thursday that could upend the sprawling election meddling and racketeering case against former President Donald Trump and others.

In August, a Fulton County grand jury returned a 41-count indictment accusing Trump and 18 co-defendants of plotting to reverse the former president’s 2020 electoral loss in Georgia. Willis has been leading the investigation.

Then Merchant filed a bombshell motion on January 8 on behalf of her client, GOP political operative Mike Roman, 52, alleging that Willis had an “improper” and “clandestine” relationship with Nathan Wade, whom Willis appointed as a special prosecutor — and demanding that Willis’ charges against Roman be dropped.

Merchant, who was just sworn in as president of the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, argued that Willis should be disqualified from the case because “the district attorney chose to appoint her romantic partner, who at all times relevant to this prosecution has been a married man.”

Criminal defense attorney Ashleigh Merchant standing next to a man in a suit in a courtroom

Criminal defense attorney Ashleigh Merchant, seen here Monday during a hearing involving the state of Georgia vs. President Trump and 18 other defendants. AP

Judge Scott McAfee presiding over a hearing, holding a document in his hand

Judge Scott McAfee, who is overseeing the election interefence case, ruled Monday in favor of a call for a hearing into whether Fani Willis and Nathan Wade may have a conflict of interest. Willis will have to be deposed. AP

Merchant contended that Wade, an attorney with the Marietta, Ga.-based Wade & Campbell Firm, used some of the nearly $654,000 in legal fees that he’s been paid by the Fulton County DA’s Office for his work on the Trump case to take Willis on lavish vacations to “Napa Valley, California, Florida and the Caribbean.”

Willis, 44, has admitted to a “relationship” with Wade — a personal injury lawyer with little to no experience in high-profile felony trial cases — but her office has dismissed it as “gossip” which should not derail the racketeering case.

On Thursday, Willis and Wade face a high-stakes hearing on whether their relationship is a conflict of interest, which Merchant says should lead to the end of the case against her client, and by implication, Trump and the others.

A photo of Ashleigh Merchant in court.

Georgia criminal defense lawyer Ashleigh Merchant will be front and center at Thursday’s hearing about possibly disqualifying Fulton County DA Fani Willis from the Trump prosecution. AP

Fulton County DA Fani Willis speaks at press conference with prosecutor Nathan Wade after Grand Jury indicts former President Donald Trump.

Willis (second from left) appointed Wade (third from left) and has paid him hundreds of thousands of dollars as a special prosecutor. On Thursday a judge will start a two-day hearing that could lead to both being removed from the case. REUTERS

All those charged by Willis in the Georgia election fraud case. FULTON COUNTY SHERIFF’S OFFICE/AFP via Getty Images

Willis may be forced to testify about when her relationship with Wade began, the judge presiding over the Trump case, Scott McAfee, said Monday.

It puts Merchant in the national spotlight, potentially bringing about the end of a case against Trump which some legal observers had seen as the strongest of the four criminal indictments he faces, and his remaining 14 co-defendants. Four have pleaded guilty to a range of charges.

Merchant said her work is not partisan; she just goes the extra distance for her clients, which happened when she nosed around a divorce filing by Wade’s then-estranged wife, Joycelyn — and found information that led her to believe that Willis and Wade might have financially benefited from Wade’s appointment as special prosecutor in the case.

A photo of lawyer Ashleigh Merchant in court.

Merchant is the incoming president of the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and has been described as a “pit bull.” AP

A photo of Fulton County DA Fani Willis sitting in court.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is in the crosshairs of a motion filed by Ashleigh Merchant on behalf of her client, Trump co-defendant Mike Roman. She is expected to testify at a hearing Thursday. AP

“I am what I would consider a proactive defense lawyer as opposed to a reactive defense lawyer,” Merchant told The Post.

“Many lawyers only react and defend but I try to take a more proactive approach and investigate every aspect of a case.

“Many lawyers let the government do the investigation and they just try to poke holes in that but I take a very different approach. I try to use the facts and the truth to help defend my clients. And I would never take any action just to upset a case.

A photo of Georgia criminal defense lawyer Nathan Wade standing at a podium in court.

Special prosecutor Nathan Wade was appointed by Fulton County DA Fani Willis, who has admitted to a romantic relationship with him. AP

“I only take actions that are carefully investigated and have a legal basis to support them. If the government is trying to send someone to prison, I think a defense lawyer owes a duty to their clients to fully investigate every aspect of a case.”

As for preparations, “I ran this morning and it felt amazing!” Merchant told The Post Tuesday. “I actually think about cross-examinations and arguments on long runs.”

Thursday and Friday’s scheduled two-day hearing will showcase carefully honed skills, her friends said.

A photo of Joycelyn Wade in a strapless dress.

Ashleigh Merchant was preparing her case on behalf of Trump co-defendant Mike Roman when she found potential information about the affair between Willis and Wade in the divorce filings of Wade’s estranged wife, Joycelyn. @purevinesfreshwines

“Ashleigh’s one helluva lawyer, a real pit bull,” Dwight Thomas, 72, one of Atlanta’s most powerful and respected criminal defense lawyers, told The Post.

“I’ve known her for many years and she’s aggressive, zealous and leaves no stone unturned. She thrives on this kind of hard work and pressure and she doesn’t mind ruffling feathers.

“There’s a lot riding on this hearing and she will be more than ready for it, I can assure you.”

Longtime Georgia lawmaker Vernon Jones, a Democratic state representative-turned-vocal Trump supporter, said Merchant “is the best-kept secret in this case.”

A photo of the Marietta, GA law offices of Ashleigh Merchant and her husband, John Merchant III.

The Marietta, Ga., law offices of Ashleigh Merchant and her husband, John Merchant III. Dana Kennedy

“She’s going to be the person who will bring this (Trump) case to a halt,” Jones told The Post. “She has an explosive, brilliant legal and political mind. She’s the one everyone else (the other co-defendants) are basing their legal strategy on. So goes Ashleigh, so go all the others.”

To make matters worse for Willis, Republican lawmakers in Georgia said Friday that multiple employees from the DA’s office are eager to testify against their boss in a special Senate fact-finding investigation.

She is also being investigated by Georgia’s Prosecuting Attorneys’ Qualifications Commission, and US Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) has subpoenaed her for documents about allegations that Willis fired a whistleblower from her office and misused federal funds.

A photo of Ashleigh Merchant weaing a dress and pearls.

Prior to the Trump case, Merchant (above) was best known for her successful defense of a man accused of murdering former Georgia beauty queen Tara Grinstead in 2005. gacdl.wildapricot.org

Merchant works with her husband, John Merchant III, at a deceptively small-looking firm in an office park in Marietta, about two miles from Wade’s office. The two met at the University of Florida Law School and have two daughters.

Prior to this year, Merchant was best known for her successful defense of a man charged with murdering former beauty queen-turned-history teacher Tara Grinstead in 2005.

It was an especially tough case. Ryan Alexander Duke had confessed to killing Grinstead and burning her body, but when he took the stand, he recanted his claim and said he had been afraid of naming his friend Bo Dukes.

Rudy Giuliani, a man in a suit, speaking to the media outside Fulton County Jail, Atlanta, Georgia.

Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor, is the most high-profile of the former president’s co-accused. If Willis is removed from the case, charges against him would be in peril. AFP via Getty Images

Duke got 10 years in prison for concealing a death but was acquitted of malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault and burglary.

Her friend and fellow Georgia criminal defense lawyer Megan Grout, who is part of an informal group of female criminal defense lawyers called BAWLS — BAdass Women LawyerS — said she could “talk about Ashleigh all day. She’s gonna be hell on wheels in that courtroom Thursday.”

“She is utterly fearless and utterly dedicated,” Grout said. “All you need to know is that my daughter is in law school and she says Ashleigh is her role model — and her mother is a criminal defense attorney!”

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