Washington (CNN) — Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, who has not shied away from prosecuting high-profile cases, has returned to the spotlight amid news that her office is expected to indict more than a dozen individuals over attempts by Donald Trump and his allies to the results of the 2020 presidential election in Georgia.
The potential charges are the culmination of an investigation that has spanned more than two years and could lead to conspiracy and racketeering charges, which Willis has successfully brought against defendants in the past.
The Atlanta district attorney is expected to spend one or two days this week presenting her case before a grand jury, likely starting Monday. At least two witnesses have publicly confirmed that they were called to testify before the grand jury on Tuesday.
Willis, a Democrat who is Fulton County’s first female district attorney, had only been in office for a day when the former president called Georgia GOP Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger on Jan. 2, 2021, urging him to “find votes.” to the 2020 Presidential Election Results.
She campaigned on the premise of restoring the integrity of the Fulton County District Attorney’s office, was elected after ousting incumbent Paul Howard for six terms, and inherited a pile of backlogs.
Within a month, her office fired letters to Georgia officials requesting that documents related to efforts to influence the state’s 2020 election be preserved.
Trump has vigorously denied wrongdoing, as have his allies who are also under scrutiny in the investigation. The former president lashed out at Willis, who is black, calling her a “racist” and an “insane Marxist” and baselessly claiming she has ties to gang members.
Asked by CNN in February 2022 about the fight to present a former president facing persecution in her state, Willis said, “What I can imagine is that we actually live in a society where Lady Justice is blind, and that it doesn’t matter if you’re rich, poor, black, white, democrat or republican, if you’ve broken the law, you’ll be sued.”
In addition to leading the election subversion investigation, Willis has also filed anti-corruption charges against Grammy-winning rapper Young Thug and his associates. The district attorney has spoken highly of RICO – the racketeering law against influenced and corrupt organizations – and has used it in unorthodox ways to press charges against school officials and musicians, including Young Thug.
“The way she takes things starts at the top and she really dives in. She follows every lead she can,” said Charlie Bailey, who previously worked with Willis in the Fulton County DA’s office and at the 2014 Atlanta Public school fraud scandal where she used racketeering statutes to get guilty pleas from teachers and administrators.
“Ultimately she will make a decision based on the fact that they will find out,” Bailey told CNN in 2021. “And she will make a decision based on applying that relevant law.”
‘I took the leap of faith’
Willis came from California via Washington, D.C. and received her undergraduate degree from Howard University in 1992 and graduated from Emory School of Law in 1996, according to her biography. Her name, Fani, is Swahili meaning ‘prosperous’, and her father was a lawyer and Black Panther.
According to a South Atlanta Magazine profile, she worked in the private sector for five years before becoming an assistant district attorney for Fulton County in 2001.
Willis garnered attention as a lead prosecutor in the Atlanta Public Schools fraud scandal. Willis continued the seven-month trial from 2014 to 2015, securing convictions for 11 of the 12 defendants charged with racketeering and other crimes related to deception that were believed to date back to early 2001, when skills test scores statewide rates began to rise in the 50,000-student school district.
She opened a private practice in 2018 focused on criminal defense and family law. “I was raised by a single father and that is why my heart is always with fathers – so in my family law practice I represent men going through battles, you know, with children and child support and child custody,” said Willis in a July 2020 interview .
She stood up to Howard, her former boss, when he faced allegations of misconduct, including financial mismanagement and sexual harassment. He previously questioned the timing of the sexual harassment lawsuits, which he said came “within weeks of the general election”.
CNN contacted Howard for additional comment.
Willis, a mother of two, told South Atlanta magazine shortly after she was elected that she always knew she wanted to be a district attorney, “but in my mind I would never go against the sitting district attorney… but the screams got louder and louder and louder… and I just took the plunge and did what God called me to.”
Referring to the coronavirus pandemic and its predecessor, Willis said she faced a backlog of thousands of cases upon taking office in 2021.
Due to Georgia law that says defendants charged with crimes in the state are entitled to bail if not charged within 90 days, Willis was tasked with pressing charges or getting violent offenders back on the streets.
She pushed for additional funding from the Fulton County Commission to hire 55 staff for the district attorney’s office, including 15 attorneys and 15 investigators. Willis said at the time that her office had been working “around the clock” to make sure murder cases were brought before the deadline. Still, she said there would be “four or five hundred defendants that we don’t make it to and … a judge will be mandated to bail them.”
As a prosecutor, Willis created a pre-indictment diversion program that allows defendants to enroll in life skills courses and participate in community service instead of being charged.
Campaign fundraiser controversy
Willis’ working relationship with Bailey, a former senior assistant district attorney, was the source of criticism last year when Willis organized a campaign fundraiser to support his bid for lieutenant governor and donated to his primary campaign. Bailey’s opponent, Burt Jones, a Republican senator, eventually triumphed in the race.
Jones was one of 16 Republicans serving as “fake voters” in a plan to undermine the Electoral College from certifying Joe Biden’s 2020 victory.
A judge in Georgia blocked Willis from opening an investigation against Jones after his lawyers claimed her political actions would disqualify her.
In addition to blocking the investigation, Fulton County Supreme Court Justice Robert McBurney criticized Willis for hosting a fundraiser for a candidate who runs into one of the possible targets of the investigation. “It’s a ‘What do you think?’ moment,” McBurney said. “The optics are atrocious.”
Bailey declined to comment to CNN, including about the fundraiser.
A recent Trump campaign ad targeting multiple prosecutors noted that Willis was disqualified from investigating Jones, but also included an unfounded claim that she was hiding a relationship with a gang member she was prosecuting.
Willis denounced the ad as “derogatory and false” and instructed her staff not to comment on the ad or otherwise criticize her, her staff or her office for the next several months.
“We have no personal feelings toward those we are investigating or prosecuting, nor should we express them. This is business, it will never be personal,” she wrote in an email to her associates last week that CNN received. ‘We have work to do. In this office, we prosecute based on the facts and the law. The law is impartial. You shouldn’t feel the need to defend me.’
Willis added: “Your instruction from me is to ignore all noise and continue to do your job excellently.”
She also urged local officials to remain vigilant about potential security threats from the election subversion. In an email last month to Fulton County officials, Willis shared a racist and sexualized message she received, saying similar obscene messages had been left through voicemail.
“I’m messaging you in case you’re not sure what I and my staff have gotten used to over the past 2½ years,” Willis wrote.
Investigating Georgia’s rogue voters
Willis is one of five independently elected investigators in the US who have received significant attention due to investigations into the former president.
While investigating Trump and his allies’ attempts to thwart Georgia’s election results, Willis and her team interviewed the 16 Republicans proposed in the state as alternate voters. The district attorney’s office announced last year that those voters were the target of its investigation.
“As our investigation has matured and new evidence has come to light, in a spirit of integrity, we feel it is only appropriate to inform you that your clients’ status has changed to ‘Target’,” the firm said. Willis at the time, according to a defence.
Willis’s office appeared to be trying to determine whether Georgia’s pro-Trump voters knew their actions may have been part of a wider and possibly illegal plot to pressure election officials and overturn Biden’s victory, a spokesman said. source previously to CNN.
A number of notable figures received special grand jury subpoenas as part of the district attorney’s investigation into efforts to overturn the state’s 2020 election results, and still others have cooperated in the investigation.
At least eight of the Republican “fake voters” have accepted immunity deals in the ongoing criminal investigation.
“Don’t confess crimes on rap lyrics if you don’t want them used”
While Willis has subpoenaed Trump allies such as South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham and Rudy Giuliani, she has also filed RICO charges against top rappers, including Young Thug and Gunna.
Willis previously announced charges against Young Thug and Drug Rich Gang in cases citing song lyrics as evidence — an approach critics call an infringement of First Amendment rights.
When asked by a reporter at a news conference last August how she responds to criticism that she specifically targets Atlanta’s hip-hop community, Willis said, “I’m not directing it at anyone, but you can’t commit crimes in my county and then decide to brag about, what you’re doing for some form of harassment and to help the gang move forward and not be held accountable.”
While her use of song lyrics as evidence may anger some people, Willis said, she will continue to use them.
“I need some legal advice. Don’t confess to crimes on rap lyrics if you don’t want them used, or at least get out of my country,” she said.