Showing posts with label Georgia. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Georgia. Show all posts

Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Federal lawsuit challenges new Georgia cash bail law

By Stanley Dunlop 

A federal lawsuit seeks to block a new Georgia law that it claims would effectively eliminate charitable bail funds by imposing unfair and severe restrictions.

The lawsuit filed last week by the American Civil Liberties Union and Georgetown University Law Center challenges a new law created by Senate Bill 63, which requires charitable organizations that offer free bail assistance to follow the same rules as private bail bond companies. That means required background checks, payments, licenses and cash escrow accounts.

Friday, February 16, 2024

Fulton DA delivers fiery testimony against Trump, co-defendants quest to disqualify her


Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis on Thursday fiercely defended herself against allegations of prosecutorial misconduct while she had a romantic relationship with the special prosecutor she appointed to oversee the 2020 presidential election interference case.

A surprise appearance in a Fulton County courtroom saw Willis agree to testify in response to defense attorneys and a witness contradicting her statements that she only became romantically involved with Nathan Wade a few months after she hired him as a lead special prosecutor in a sweeping racketeering case charging interference in Georgia’s 2020 election. Former President Donald Trump and 18 co-defendants were indicted by a grand jury in August on charges of illegally trying to alter the 2020 presidential election results in Georgia and several other swing states.

Willis repeatedly denied allegations that she or Wade misappropriated taxpayer funds for personal gain based on her relationship with Wade outside of work. The motion to disqualify her is centered on that issue, as opposed to the just-admitted nature of the romantic relationship between Willis and Wade.

Willis’ appearance also means another day of testimony Friday in the judge’s hearing on defendants’ request to have her disqualified.

Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee scheduled the hearing last month to address whether Willis should be barred from overseeing the election interference case in the future. Wade’s estranged wife revealed in a January divorce filing that airline tickets were purchased for him and Willis for trips to San Francisco and Miami from 2022 to 2023 under Wade’s name on credit cards.

Willis’ harshest barbs Thursday were targeted at Ashleigh Merchant, the attorney for Trump co-defendant Michael Roman, who publicly surfaced the existence of a romance between Willis and Wade in January. Merchant, along with Trump attorney Steve Sadow and others representing co-defendants, raised doubts to the former couple testifying that Willis repaid Wade thousands of dollars in cash for several flights, cruises and other trips they took together while dating from March 2022 until summer 2023.

Merchant repeatedly questioned Willis about whether she tracked each cash payment and why she didn’t provide documents showing withdrawals from her bank account or other financial changes that would support her testimony.

“So you have no proof of any reimbursement for any of these things because it was all cash,” Merchant said to Willis.

Willis called her line of questioning insulting, especially the charge that the DA had started the affair as soon as she met Wade at a 2019 conference. She said she would reimburse Wade for her share of travel expenses with cash she kept at home over time that she incrementally saved. According to her, the largest reimbursement was about $2,500 for one trip.

”The testimony of one witness is enough to prove a fact. Are you telling me that I’m lying to you, is that what you’re intimating here?” Willis asked.

Merchant said Willis should be aware that how she uses public funds will be scrutinized as a district attorney. Since November 2021, Wade’s firm has received more than $650,000 from Fulton County.

“You understand that you’re under a microscope,” Merchant said. “You have reporting requirements to all types of things. You have no record other than your testimony of the money that you’ve given Mr. Wade.”

Willis rejected defense questioning if Wade visited her south Fulton home before Willis launched the investigation into Trump’s role in Georgia’s election. She also reaffirmed her decision to pursue the felony racketeering case against Trump, several members of his inner circle and other Trump supporters because they attempted to illegally influence election results in his favor.

One of Willis’ angry reactions to pointed personal questions led McAfee to order a five-minute break after Willis repeatedly told Merchant “It’s a lie” while holding court documents filed by the Marietta attorney.

“He never came to my house, let alone live with me, as you falsely put in these documents,” Willis said about the residence she lived in during 2019 and 2020.

As pressure mounted in the high-profile case, Willis and Wade ended their relationship last summer, they said. The two continue to be friends as well as professional colleagues, she said.

“Mr. Wade has been my friend since 2020,” Willis said. “He started out as a mentor and professional colleague and he became my friend and somebody that I really respected. I feel very indebted to Mr. Wade for taking on the task of this job.”

On Thursday, defense attorneys also criticized Willis for not listing Wade’s travel expenses on financial disclosure reports that require public officers to disclose gifts of at least $100 or more from anyone contracting with the government.

The district attorney said she never considered the vacations with Wade to be gifts since she would later cover her share of the expenses.

Wade provided his own testimony in advance of Willis’ time on the stand, disputing the testimony of a former longtime friend of Willis, Robin Bryant-Yeartie, who claimed that Wade and Willis were intimate before he began working on the election investigation.

Wade testified that he never discussed his relationship with Bryant-Yeartie or with anyone else in social settings, and that Willis frequently reimbursed him for trips with cash. Occasionally, the two took one-day trips to Tennessee in order to escape the spotlight on Willis as she became well known around Atlanta due to the case, Wade said.  

He told the court that because of a cancer diagnosis in 2020 and 2021, he was focused more on staying healthy rather than dating anyone.

“It wasn’t secret. It was just private,” said Wade, a former prosecutor who also spent a decade as a Cobb County municipal judge. “I wouldn’t have discussed my relationship with Ms. Yeartie or anyone publicly.”

Bryant-Yeartie testified Thursday that she sublet her condo to Willis in April 2021, and that the two were close friends from the early 1990s until March 2022. Bryant-Yeartie said that she was certain that she witnessed Willis and Wade hugging, kissing and holding hands on a few occasions prior to November 2021.

Under cross examination, she acknowledged having a falling out with Willis that ultimately led to the DA telling her to resign or be terminated due to poor job performance.

Reaction split on Willis sparring with defense counsel

The reaction to Willis’ testimony was split along partisan lines with election officials and for many spectators who monitored online livestreams that attracted tens of thousand of people at a given time watching the tense-filled moments play out.

Trump sounded a defiant tone in an interview with Fox News Digital during Willis’s testimony.

“There is no case here,” Trump said. “It is so badly tainted. There is no case here. There was a perfect phone call. It was perfect. But by going after Trump, she’s able to get her boyfriend more money than they ever dreamed possible.”

Legal experts also had mixed reactions to Willis and Wade’s testimony. While some experts criticized Willis for being overly defensive, they also doubted that the defense attorneys had provided enough evidence to remove her from the election interference case.

Norman Eisen, an attorney who served as special counsel to the House Judiciary Committee majority during Trump’s first impeachment and trial, said Willis has so far defended herself from the allegations.

“The spectacle generated by the allegations and by counsel for the defendants today was not pretty,” said Eisen, who also served as ambassador to the Czech Republic during the Obama administration. “But at the end of the day, it is clear that those who are trying to disqualify DA Willis have not met their steep burden under Georgia law to prove a conflict. On the contrary, the judge has made clear that he’s assessing financial benefit, and the unrebutted evidence shows that Wade and Willis split expenses. There was no benefit to Willis.”

Rep. Shea Roberts, House Democratic Caucus treasurer, described Thursday’s hearing as nothing more than a sensationalized attack by Trump on Willis for pursuing charges against him and others. 

“We all heard the smoking gun recording of the phone call in which Trump pressured Secretary (Brad) Raffensperger to alter Georgia’s election results, and no amount of manufactured controversy the Trump team tries to conjure up can change that,” Roberts said in statement.

Georgia Recorder reporter Ross Williams contributed to this report.

This article originally appeared in the Georgia Recorder on February 15th, 2024.  

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Monday, January 22, 2024

State spending to prosecute – and defend – gang members on the docket for Georgia General Assembly

Several state agencies are seeking millions more in state funds to handle the growing caseload resulting from the state’s recent crackdown on street gangs.

Republican Attorney General Chris Carr and the directors of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and Georgia Public Defender Council presented budget requests to state lawmakers on Thursday that include creating a new street gang task force, hiring new street gang data analysts, and hiring more attorneys who specialize in felony organized crime cases.

With the passage of a new state law endorsed by Gov. Brian Kemp and the General Assembly, Carr’s office in July 2022, Georgia created its first statewide gang prosecution unit that has since led to the indictment of more than 100 people and two dozen convictions. The overall number of gang-related cases is more extensive across Georgia, with the GBI data confirming that in 2023 a total of 287 street gang investigations across 93 counties leading to 325 arrests on felony charges.

The Attorney General’s Gang Prosecution Unit based in Atlanta, with regional, satellite prosecutors and investigators in Albany and Augusta is seeking another $807,000 to expand with new units in Macon, Columbus and Savannah. Carr is also backing the GOP governor’s budget recommendation to use $1.6 million to boost AG’s attorney salaries as part of a multi-year recruitment and retention plan. 

It’s all part of a collaborative approach to targeting gangs that often spread violence in their communities, Carr said. 

“Any additional amount will help us and it looks like there’s always going to be a challenge. There is a gap between the public sector and the private sector, but there’s no doubt that it’s helpful,” he said. “What we’ve seen is there are issues and what we want to do is be regional in nature because we know that gangs don’t care where the city lines, where the state lines are from an efficiency standpoint.

 It is becoming increasingly common for people accused of being involved in criminal enterprises like street gangs to be prosecuted under the Georgia Racketeer Influenced & Corrupt Organizations Act,  which is modeled on the federal racketeering law intended to take down mob operations and other racketeering fronts.  Some detractors of the RICO-heavy approach say prosecutors and other law enforcement officials can unfairly ensnare people who are loosely affiliated with individuals connected to the group while still failing to address larger systematic problems.

During last year’s session, Georgia Republicans helped pass a highly-divisive bill that increased the severity of penalties for street gang-related crimes.

A 21% drop in Atlanta homicides in 2023 has been attributed  by the Atlanta Police Department and Mayor Andre Dickens to an increased focus on fighting guns and gangs, according to a recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution article.

Atlanta rapper Young Thug and members of his record label, Young Slime Life, are facing first degree murder and drug trafficking charges in Georgia’s most high-profile street gang RICO case to date. Meanwhile, former President Donald Trump headlined the 19 individuals indicted in August in Fulton County for allegedly participating in a racketeering conspiracy to overturn Georgia’s 2020 presidential election.

Due to handling dozens of gang and racketeering cases over the past year, the state’s public defender’s council is requesting $5.7 million to pay for attorneys with special training in gang and RICO cases.

The additional funding for RICO cases would allow the organization to provide legal representation to people who cannot afford an attorney while also meeting the growing trend of gang-related investigations, according to Omotayo Alli, executive director of the Georgia Public Defender Council.

In the past year, the public defender’s office has handled nearly 70 street gang crime cases, with the number of defendants indicted ranging from six to upwards of 50 under the same overarching charge. Currently, it would cost the public defenders office at least $255,000 to contract enough private attorneys to represent 34 defendants charged in a single RICO case, Alli said.

“It’s been a lot of indictments for gang RICO defendants,” she said at Thursday’s budget committee hearing inside the state Capitol. “We understand that but we have to be able to represent those who have been indicted and arrested.”

The council is also requesting that the upcoming year’s budget have another $937,000 allocated for RICO cases along with another $9.1 million for attorneys salaries as part of the overall agency recruitment and retention programs.

The public defender’s office has been able to increase the starting pay for its attorneys from $45,000 in 2020 to $72,000 this year by consolidating job positions. The budget salary request includes money to boost the starting pay to $83,000 for the upcoming year.

“The attrition rate that we had in the past was quite detrimental, because  we train and we lose them. It’s like wasting money,” Alli said. We’re doing better because you have been considerate of our request.”

The multi-million dollar budget request designated for street gang enforcement caught the attention of Atlanta Democratic Rep. Scott Holcomb on Thursday.

“It would be interesting to see over time if this an aberration or a new trend line on the number of resources that need to be devoted,” he said.

GBI Director Chris Hosey said Thursday that his agency supports the governor requesting nearly $6 million in next year’s budget be used to hire a 14-member GBI gang task force that would be based out of Columbus. The new Columbus gang unit would join other GBI gang units located in Atlanta and Macon to go along with regional gang unit specialists in other pockets of the state.

The increased focus on gangs is also supported by Kemp recommending that the GBI receive a total of  $395,000 over the next year to hire criminal intelligence analysts tasked with supporting a street gang database available to other law enforcement agencies throughout the state. 

“We have consulted on street gang cases more than 50 times with local partners,” Hosey said. “A lot of the cases we work there is another criminal element to it whether it be homicides, drugs, assaults, human trafficking so the importance of working that and addressing it is paramount to us.”

In addition to the tough-on-crime approach, Carr said research will continue on the most challenging task, which is identifying programs that best divert people from joining gangs. 

“How do you stop a young person from joining a gang where at best you end up in jail, at worst you end up dead,” Carr asked. “Who are the communities most often targeted by gangs?  Low income, racially diverse and immigrant populations.”

This article originally appeared in the Georgia Recorder on January 18th, 2024.  

Please support the news you can use and visit The Brooks Blackboard's website, for more news and share our posts! 

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