Justice Department conducting criminal probe of Fulton DA

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard on June 17, 2020, during a news conference at Fulton County Superior Courthouse. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Records sought from Atlanta regarding payments to Paul Howard’s nonprofit

The U.S. Justice Department has opened a criminal investigation into Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard and his use of a nonprofit to pad his salary with almost $200,000 in city of Atlanta funds, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News have learned.

The probe was disclosed in a recent subpoena calling for the production of documents to a federal grand jury in Atlanta on Oct. 6. It was submitted to the city of Atlanta’s law department by the criminal division of the Justice Department’s public integrity section in Washington.

The subpoena seeks communications, requests and records between the city and the Fulton DA’s office from Jan. 1, 2014, through Dec. 31, 2017. It specifically asks for documents related to checks from the city to the DA’s office: one for $125,000 dated Aug. 15, 2014, and another for $125,000 dated Sept. 30, 2016.

As previously reported by the AJC, when the city sent those two checks to the DA’s office, Howard deposited them into a bank account held by People Partnering for Progress. PPP, a nonprofit that Howard runs as CEO, says its mission is to reduce youth violence.

From 2014 to 2019, PPP periodically cut checks to Howard totaling $195,000.

On Wednesday, Howard, who was soundly defeated in his reelection bid, said his office was also served a federal grand jury subpoena requesting records related to the supplemental compensation provided to him and his office by the city.

“The Atlanta City Council unanimously passed and the Atlanta mayor signed into law the budgeted payments made to me and this office,” Howard said. “These payments were completely lawful.”

“All records covered by the subpoena will be furnished as requested,” he said. "I will fully cooperate with this investigation and am confident my actions do not violate any state or federal law.”

Michael Smith, a spokesman for the mayor’s office, said, “The authorities have the full cooperation of the city on this matter.”

After the AJC and Channel 2 disclosed the payments, state Attorney General Chris Carr asked the GBI to investigate the matter and its probe is ongoing. The Justice Department subpoena to the city, obtained by Channel 2 under the Open Records Act, indicates the GBI may now be assisting the public integrity section.

GBI spokeswoman Nelly Miles said her agency is coordinating efforts with the Justice Department, but she added there is still a separate state investigation.

Atlanta criminal defense attorney Bruce Morris, who is not involved in the case, called the subpoenas a serious matter.

“The fact that it comes from public integrity in Washington, D.C., suggests a higher level of inquiry," he said.

“Anybody who has followed this would recognize that whatever it is, it doesn’t pass the smell test,” Morris said. "Whether it’s criminal or not has yet to be determined. But it stinks.”

U.S. Attorney BJay Pak decided to recuse the Atlanta office from the investigation because it is defending the Justice Department in litigation filed by the Fulton DA’s office, spokesman Bob Page said.

Howard, Fulton’s DA since 1997, told the city in 2014 he was not being paid enough through his state salary and a county supplement. (At the time, he was making roughly $158,000; he now makes about $175,000.)

In a letter to then-Mayor Kasim Reed, Howard said he was not making as much as some other DAs across the state. He asked the city to give him an $81,259 salary supplement to increase his annual compensation to $239,500.

Kasim Reed is sworn in by Justice Carol Hunstein as the city of Atlanta's 59th mayor on Jan. 4, 2010. (BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM)

Such an arrangement appeared questionable, because Georgia law says only counties — not cities — can supplement a DA’s state salary. But Howard previously told the AJC and Channel 2 that he asked one of his former appellate attorneys to determine if the city could supplement his salary. She concluded there was no law prohibiting it, he said.

That same attorney, however, did not address the legality of Howard getting the funds from his nonprofit, instead of receiving them directly from the city.

Howard did not get the city supplement he asked for. But the city ultimately transmitted the two $125,000 checks to the DA’s office.

After getting the first payment, Howard sent a thank-you letter to Reed. Howard said the funds would be used to augment the duties of the DA’s community prosecution program to help reduce crime and improve quality of life within the city. The money also would “provide additional compensation to the community prosecution staff and the district attorney,” Howard wrote in his letter.

As it turned out, almost 80% of the city funds went into Howard’s pocket.

In 2014, Howard was paid $30,000 of the city funds through his nonprofit, then $50,000 in 2015, $20,000 in 2016, $70,000 in 2017, $20,000 in 2018 and $5,000 in 2019, nonprofit records and state documents show.

The Justice Department subpoena called for the city to produce all communications and records related to People Partnering for Progress. And it seeks all documents exchanged between the city and Howard related to supplemental funding of the DA’s office.

The subpoena says its request for city of Atlanta records includes those from the mayor’s office and the City Council. It also called for relevant records from Katrina Taylor Parks, a two-decades-plus veteran of City Hall who pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges; former police chiefs Erika Shields and George Turner; former City Council members C.T. Martin and Ceasar Mitchell; and Tracy Woodard, a former APD business manager.

In Other News