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Texts Show Witness Readily Helped Build a Case to Disqualify Trump Prosecutors

Texts Show Witness Readily Helped Build a Case to Disqualify Trump Prosecutors

Terrence Bradley, an Atlanta-area lawyer, had been billed as the star witness in the effort to disqualify Fani T. Willis, the district attorney leading the election interference case against former President Donald J. Trump in Georgia. But when Mr. Bradley took the stand this week — and twice earlier this month — he was a deeply reluctant witness.

His testimony did little to resolve a question at the heart of the defense’s attempt to show that Ms. Willis had an untenable conflict of interest: Whether the romantic relationship between Ms. Willis and Nathan Wade, the lawyer she hired to help run the Trump case, began before or after he joined her staff.

But hundreds of text messages obtained by The New York Times show that Mr. Bradley, a former law partner and friend of Mr. Wade, helped a defense lawyer to expose the relationship between the two prosecutors.

The texts reveal that Mr. Bradley, who served for a time as Mr. Wade’s divorce lawyer until the two men had a bitter falling-out, assisted the effort to reveal the romance and provide details about it for at least four months — countering the impression he left on the witness stand that he had known next to nothing about the romance.

In the text exchanges, which began in September of last year and were reported late Wednesday by CNN, Mr. Bradley claimed some knowledge of when the relationship began. He even offered the defense lawyer, Ashleigh Merchant, reassurance as she submitted her motion to disqualify to the court.

“I am nervous,” Ms. Merchant texted to Mr. Bradley on Jan. 8, the day she filed the motion. “This is huge.”

“You are huge,” Mr. Bradley encouraged her. “You will be fine.”

Ultimately, it will be up to the judge to assess the credibility of Mr. Bradley, and determine whether the text messages bolster the case for disqualifying the prosecutors.

Lawyers for Mr. Trump and his co-defendants have argued that the relationship between the prosecutors amounted to “self-dealing,” because Mr. Wade, who has made more than $650,000 working for Ms. Willis’s office, paid for vacations that the couple took together. A series of hearings delving into the issue has plunged the overall case into turmoil.

When contacted Thursday morning, a lawyer for Mr. Wade, Andrew Evans, said that “the texts contain several outright lies.” Among them, Mr. Evans said, was an assertion from Mr. Bradley that either Mr. Evans or his wife, Stacey Evans, a Democratic state representative, had witnessed Mr. Wade and Ms. Willis having sex.

A lawyer for Mr. Bradley, Bimal Chopra, Jr., declined to comment.

Ms. Willis, the Fulton County district attorney, has defended her conduct. She has acknowledged that she had a romantic relationship with Mr. Wade. But she has said that it started after she hired him, and argued that the relationship did not create a conflict under Georgia law.

Both Mr. Wade and Ms. Willis have told the court that they divided the costs of the vacations about evenly between them.

Mr. Bradley was one of two witnesses called by Ms. Merchant to testify, expecting they would say that the relationship started before Ms. Willis hired Mr. Wade in November 2021. The other was Robin Yeartie, a former friend of Ms. Willis and former employee of the D.A.’s office, who testified in mid-February that the romance started before Mr. Wade was hired.

The business partnership between Mr. Wade and Mr. Bradley soured after Mr. Bradley was accused of sexually assaulting an employee, an accusation he vigorously denied during his testimony. Mr. Bradley told the court this week that he had not spoken to Mr. Wade in more than a year.

Before exposing the romance in her Jan. 8 filing, Ms. Merchant asked Mr. Bradley in a text: “Do you think it started before she hired him?”

“Absolutely,” Mr. Bradley replied, adding that the romance had started when the two served as local judges, before Ms. Willis’s election as district attorney in 2020.

But on the witness stand this week, Mr. Bradley said he had only been “speculating” about the timing. Though Mr. Wade had told him about the relationship, he said on the stand, he did not have direct knowledge about when it began.

The text messages — some of which Ms. Merchant described in court after Mr. Bradley did not provide the testimony she was hoping for — show that Mr. Bradley was trading messages with Ms. Merchant about the prosecutors and their romance as long ago as September. Mr. Bradley made suggestions about who might know about the romance and be able to corroborate it. He encouraged Ms. Merchant to subpoena members of Ms. Willis’s security detail and other members of her staff.

He also helped Ms. Merchant as she tried to pinpoint the location of an apartment where Ms. Willis was staying. And he accused Mr. Wade and Ms. Willis of “arrogance.”

Ms. Merchant texted Mr. Bradley in early January that she had records showing the two prosecutors had traveled to the Napa Valley in California and had taken a Royal Caribbean cruise together, writing that she was “shocked they were so careless.”

“Damn what else,” he replied.

When Ms. Merchant was writing the motion to disqualify the prosecutors, she assured Mr. Bradley that “I protected you completely,” adding, “I kept you out of it.”

Ms. Merchant also told Mr. Bradley that she was becoming president of the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and wanted him to become more involved in the group, including by becoming a program director for an upcoming seminar.

Their mutual trust developed to the point that Mr. Bradley agreed when she asked if she could subpoena him.

“You are my friend and I trust you,” he told her.

Weeks later, on the witness stand, Mr. Bradley appeared to be dismayed that Ms. Merchant had ended up making him a central witness on the matter. They clashed during his testimony when it became evident that his prior enthusiasm for talking about the prosecutors’ romance had vanished. At one point during a hearing on Tuesday, a frustrated Ms. Merchant said to the presiding judge, Scott McAfee of Fulton Superior Court: “Judge, he doesn’t remember much of anything right now.”

Steven H. Sadow, a lawyer for Mr. Trump, pressed Mr. Bradley on the text exchanges at the hearing, seeking to cast doubt on Mr. Bradley’s claim that he had merely been speculating in the text messages about when the relationship began.

“Why would you speculate and say that in a text?” Mr. Sadow asked, repeating the question several times.

“I don’t recall why I thought that it started at that time,” Mr. Bradley replied.

The hearings delving into the romantic relationship do not change the underlying details of the election interference case itself, in which Mr. Trump and his allies are charged with conspiring to subvert the results of the 2020 election. Four of the 19 original defendants have already pleaded guilty.

Even so, the effort to disqualify the prosecutors has been an extraordinary detour that has turned the case upside down, with defense attorneys acting more like prosecutors, and vice versa.

Another defense witness, Ms. Yeartie, testified that the romance started before Mr. Wade was hired. Ms. Yeartie left the D.A.’s office on bad terms, a turn of events that ended her friendship with Ms. Willis.

Even if Judge McAfee allows Ms. Willis to keep the case, she is likely to face tough scrutiny, including from a new state commission with the power to remove prosecutors and from the Georgia Senate, which has opened an investigation.

Many observers, including some who support the election interference case, believe that Ms. Willis needs to cut ties to Mr. Wade and have him leave her office. So does Mr. Bradley, according to his texts: “She needs to fire nathan but she wont,” he wrote to Ms. Merchant, to which she replied, “yep,” adding, “She will go down in flames for Nathan.”

Ms. Merchant declined to comment on Thursday, except to say that she had not provided the text messages to the media. Another hearing in the case is scheduled for Friday, but a decision on the disqualification issue is not expected until next week at the earliest.

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