The Unlikely Team of Prosecutors Hunting Trump in Georgia
The public integrity unit at the Fulton County District Attorney’s office once had a miserable reputation. Now, a new crew there is investigating the biggest target of them all.
A sheriff’s deputy who went to law school but remained a cop for another two decades. A prosecutor best known for tackling juvenile offenders. And the guy who literally wrote the book on racketeering cases against mafia goons.
This is the team Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is assembling to investigate Donald Trump—to go after his advisers and their attempts to manipulate election results in Georgia.
In interviews with Willis, her staff, five former members of the team, and several people who interacted with them, The Daily Beast has learned there are now two grand juries underway in Fulton County, and jurors in these secret proceedings will soon be asked to issue subpoenas demanding documents and recordings related to the Trump investigation.
“I suspect that's in the very near future,” Willis told The Daily Beast.
It’s practically unheard of for a regional prosecutor to target a former U.S. president. But this is Donald Trump. Manhattan’s district attorney and New York State’s attorney general have active investigations. And so does the DA of Fulton County, Georgia. The case in Georgia may be the strongest; there’s a trove of evidence—documents, phone calls, witnesses—that Trump personally interfered with and pressured elections officials in Atlanta as they recounted votes.
Trump’s now infamous Jan. 2 call, in which he pressured Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find 11,780 votes,” became public on Willis’s first day in office.
Three cases were referred to her office from the Office of the Secretary of State, she said. The monumental task of conducting this investigation has fallen on the DA’s new anti-corruption team, once known as the “public integrity unit.” It’s a small team that traditionally investigates police misconduct and corrupt local government officials. Willis decided to scrap and rebrand the team because of its troubled history, one that has repeatedly drawn rebuke in Atlanta. Over the decades, the team has proved incapable of handling its regular caseload, derailing careers by leaving accused cops stuck at desk assignments—and forcing impatient families to wait years for basic answers.
With Trump, they’re now faced with the highest of high-profile potential defendants—one with enormous political backing and a legion of followers from whom he can instantly raise millions of dollars for his defense.
That checkered past is why attorneys, like Paul Kish, who have defended public officials targeted by previous iterations of that prosecution unit, had this to say: “I think they're so far out of their league it's not even funny.”
But it’s exactly why Willis, driven to run for DA partly by the frustration at the previous one’s failure to clamp down on public corruption, quickly made good on her campaign promise to destroy the old version of the team. When first asked about the unit’s past, Willis responded with a sharp one-line email: “Public Integrity died on 12/31/2020.”
She later told The Daily Beast that she removed all but one member of the previous team: the investigator Raymond Baez, who interviewed to keep his job and said he was deeply incensed at corrupt cops he encountered while growing up in Puerto Rico. It convinced Willis that he deserved to stay on. She even promoted him to assistant chief.
“I thought he was a man of integrity,” Willis said.
As for the other members of the team? A former cop, Sonya Allen is now the chief senior assistant district attorney. Allen worked at the nearby Cobb County Sheriff’s Office for nearly 30 years, rising through the ranks on the narcotics and fugitive units and eventually reaching second highest rank in the department. What sold Willis on her: Allen was the cop who investigated how a man on trial for rape, Brian Nichols, escaped custody and killed the Fulton County Superior Court judge presiding over his case.
Brian Watkins, who was just named deputy of anti-corruption, started out as a prosecutor in the eastern part of the state. He tried fraud and murder cases before switching to private practice for more than a decade, when he defended public officials accused of crimes. He is the only member of the team currently listed on the DA’s website. “We researched him greatly. He didn’t have any blemishes,” Willis told us.
Meighan L. Vargas is a former prosecutor who has previously expressed how she loves solving the puzzles that trials present. She spent a few years at a boutique law firm in Atlanta before deciding to return to join this effort.
Another member of the new team is Shannon Trotty, who previously directed the DA’s juvenile division. She has a history of showing restraint. When middle schoolers sickened their classmates in 2019 by lacing Valentine’s Day treats with THC—the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis—Trotty advised against charging them with a crime because no one could prove the students had “knowledge and intent.”
Willis also pulled a prosecutor from the complex trial division, Sau Chun Chan, who was just admitted to practice law in Georgia two years ago.
“I’m having to broaden the unit… it never looked at election fraud before now,” Willis said.
Willis has publicly acknowledged that she also hired John E. Floyd, a nationally-renowned expert on state RICO charges, who is expected to consult this team. That’s relevant, given that her office is looking into the potential use of racketeering charges against Trump’s inner circle. Prosecutors would have to prove a pattern of corruption—the same way they show that mafia bosses direct underlings. Their mission would be to show that Trump and his lieutenants conspired in a “criminal enterprise” to undermine a legitimate election.
Willis is looking to hire three more lawyers and one more investigator (a position that usually goes to former cops whose job it is to pair up with the prosecutor).
The unique nature of anti-corruption work necessitates hiring prosecutors who do a lot more detective work on their own, said Carranza Pryor, who worked on the previous public integrity team in 2016. Unlike other prosecutors, who typically get handed a police case file detailing homicide or sexual crimes with notes and interviews already conducted, anti-corruption work starts with the attorney.
“There's more privacy, secrecy, and isolation… because of the sensitivity of the work,” Pryor said. “There's a lot more time at your desk, a lot more research and review of documents and records. You have more of an opportunity to reflect, take a breath, and be more deliberate than other offices.”
In the Trump case, prosecutors will start with damning audio recordings that have already been revealed by The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal.
Those who know Willis personally do not doubt her ability to handle this case.
“She's a great prosecutor. She's a gifted trial attorney. And she’s remained an active trial attorney,” said Peter Odom, a former prosecutor who tried his first murder case alongside her in 2007.
“It’s really a leadership question. The biggest challenge to doing a case involving the president and the [Georgia] secretary of state is the glare of the spotlight. Really, it's just another case like any other. It's a conspiracy case. There's plenty of evidence. There's phone calls. Everything is public record. Proving the case is not hard. The hardest part is that the president has almost unlimited resources. He's going to hire the best attorneys. There's going to be a huge procedural battle. Every dotted ‘i’ and crossed ‘t’ in the indictment will be attacked.”
And that’s where this unit’s past could come back to haunt it.
The birth of the public integrity unit was precipitated by failure. It all started when the District Attorney's Office received a case it wasn't able to handle. Michael Hightower, then a promising young Fulton County commissioner, had accepted nearly $25,000 in bribes for helping a businessman win government contracts. Then-DA Paul Howard had key evidence, but he realized his office just wasn't capable of pursuing this kind of basic public corruption case. So instead, he passed it along to federal prosecutors who got the politician convicted.
Howard started the specialized team the very next month, in July 2000, tasking them with investigating public officials and law enforcement. It was a celebrated move by Georgia’s first elected Black district attorney, as it promised more accountability for police officers who kill without justification—decades before it became the national zeitgeist it is now.
To lead the team, he hired Stacey K. Hydrick, a prosecutor at the state Attorney General's office who had just taken down two state senators, Ralph Abernathy III and Diana Harvey Johnson. Hydrick immediately set her sights on corruption at the nearby DeKalb County Jail. Two guards were later nailed for taking bribes to let inmates get short vacations outside the facility.
The public integrity unit was plagued with resource problems from the start. The DA’s office, headquartered at the courthouse, was denied the $41,850 it had initially requested to lease an off-site office space so that the unit could be separated from the rest of the DA’s office. The idea was to create space in order to further secure its independence as a government watchdog. And when Howard did finally manage to move the team, he placed them at a building across the street—at a sleek new development owned by a corrupt former Congressman. Inevitably, the public integrity unit found itself in the awkward position of investigating its own landlord.
“It was not a good experience, and I ended up asking to be taken off the team,” said Odom, who was on the team at the time and is now in private practice in Washington, D.C. “I didn't feel the unit had anything to do with integrity. And there were certain aspects of the job that required me to do questionable things I wasn't willing to do.”
The DA at the time gained a reputation as an indecisive micromanager who held back the team because he repeatedly demanded further investigation on cases that investigators considered clear-cut, according to several former prosecutors on that team. As time went by, the unit’s case backlog grew. By the time Howard was forced out of office last year, there were nearly 125 public corruption cases sitting incomplete, according to the current DA. The unit had 43 pending cases of excessive force by police officers dating back years, and 41 of those had yet to be charged with any crime.
“I think it was a lack of strength, if you really want to know the truth,” Willis told the Beast. “People would investigate and investigate ‘til their wheels spin. And you have to have a lot of courage to make decisions in those cases.”
Most past investigations against politicians ended with little fanfare. Former members of the team cited several instances where a person running for local office lied about their home address or a criminal record that would render them ineligible. Prosecutors would avoid trial and just get them to withdraw the paperwork. And no target was ever as powerful as ex-President Trump.
“I don't think there's anyone comparable with what the team is faced with now,” said Melissa Redmon, who led the team from 2013 to 2019 and left to direct the University of Georgia law school’s prosecutorial justice program.
Odom, Redmon, and several other friends of the current district attorney said that she has her work cut out for her. She is simultaneously remaking an entire DA’s office that was widely considered broken and ineffective—while pursuing what could be the most historic case ever to come out of that office.
Willis told the Beast that she is now utilizing two ongoing grand juries to clear the case backlog, and she has requested additional funding from Fulton County. The new anti-corruption team will be located at a separate office, across the street in the Fulton County Government Center where it has been for years. Behind a single keypad-locked door is a series of narrow halls lined with boxes, filing cabinets, and a windowless conference room, according to those who worked there.
But given the sensitivity of the high-stakes investigation into the powerful billionaire who until recently held the reigns of the federal government, Willis hinted that some extra security precautions have been taken.
“Um… some investigations occur in separate places. How about that?” Willis said.
The new district attorney is also adamant that she will show more decisiveness than her predecessor, which will mean a more effective anti-corruption unit as it considers election fraud, racketeering, and false statement charges against Rudy Giuliani and other members of Team Trump.
“My philosophy is just: We’re going to call balls and strikes. And it is what it is,” Willis said. “We’re just going to use the law and the facts. I’m not going to worry about the politics of that. And I do understand what I’m saying. If that means I’m only the DA for one term… that’ll be what God has me do for these four years.”