When The Boss Has A Romantic Relationship With A Subordinate...
If Fulton County District Attorney Fani T. Willis worked in corporate America, she would likely be shown the door for dallying with with a subordinate. The issue is murkier in the public sector.
Remember when CNN President Jeff Zucker resigned under fire in 2022 because he had a consensual relationship with the company’s chief marketing officer.
Or when Steve Easterbrook, the former chief executive of McDonald’s Corp., and Intel Corp. CEO Brian Krzanich, were fired in 2019 and 2018, respectively, after having consensual relationships with employees. McDonald’s later discovered Easterbrook had engaged in other improper relationships with employees and sued him to recoup his severance pay. Easterbrook additionally was fined $400k by the Securities Exchange Commission for misleading investors about why he was fired.
Employers increasingly recognize the risk of supervisor/employee relationships. For one thing, the relationship may feel consensual to the boss but coercive to the subordinate due to the inherent power disparity. And supervisors who are romantically involved with subordinates set a poor example for underlings and expose the company to risk of lawsuits.
Many companies ban inter-company romantic relationships outright while some adopt policies that require supervisory employees to report a romantic or sexual relationship with subordinates to their supervisor and the human resources department. These reporting authorities then determine whether a transfer or termination is warranted.
Fulton County District Attorney Fani T. Willis, who is criminally prosecuting former President Donald Trump and 18 co-defendants for allegedly conspiring to overturn the 2020 election results in Georgia, has no superior to report to.
In 2021, Willis hired Nathan Wade, a married attorney in private practice and father of two, as a special prosecutor in the case. According to the New York Post, Wade filed for divorce from his wife of 26 years exactly one day after his appointment. Both Wade and Willis say their relationship began after he was hired.
Willis appointed Wade to be the lead prosecutor in the case, despite having limited experience. According to his law firm, Wade specialized in representing clients in car accidents and contract disputes. He never before handled a major political corruption case. Attorneys on Willis’ staff have more experience as felony prosecutors, including one prosecutor who is experienced in racketeering prosecutions.
Since his appointment, Wade has been paid close to $700,000.
Meanwhile, Wade and Willis have taken lavish vacations together in the Caribbean, Miami, Fl, and San Francisco and Napa Valley, CA. Bank records show Wade purchased plane tickets for some of these trips but Wade claims the expenses were “roughly divided equally.”
How to respond to an improper relationship for elected officials in the public sector is not as clear cut as it is in the corporate sector.
Arguably, state prosecutors should be held to the highest standard of conduct because they have the power to deprive defendants of their freedom. But there is no clear path to discipline Willis if she is found to have engaged in improper conduct.
Voters may disapprove of Willis’ actions but recall is a long and arduous process.
GOP Governor Brian Kemp could act but he is indirectly involved in the Trump prosecution, having rebuffed Trump’s overtures to overturn the 2020 election result.
Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis fired two state prosecutors for performance issues. DeSantis fired State Attorney Monique Worrell last summer for “neglect of duty and incompetence.” DeSantis fired State Attorney Andrew Warren in 2022 for refusing to enforce an abortion ban signed by the governor.
The scenario raises legal and ethical concerns and has added fuel to claims that the Georgia prosecution is politically motivated. There is also a potential issue of sexual harassment.