AJC photo: Tyson Horne

Fulton D.A. Paul Howard seeks seventh term amid controversy

On Election Night 2000, Paul Howard’s political journey, which had taken him from tiny Midville, population 269, to Emory Law School and then the Fulton County District Attorney’s office, seemed headed for an abrupt end.

He’d made history in 1996 as the first African-American elected as a district attorney in Georgia. But now, with more than half the precincts reporting, he trailed GOP opponent John Turner. This in a county with more than two Democratic voters for every one Republican.

“I consider myself lucky,” Howard told supporters at the Hyatt Regency downtown that night. “I am an ordinary person who has had the privilege to serve the people of Fulton County the last four years in an extraordinary position.”

The night wasn’t over, though, and neither was Howard’s tenure. The lead changed hands through the early morning hours before Howard triumphed with 54 percent of the vote. He would run opposed in four successive elections.

His seventh campaign is proving to be his most challenging. Challenger Fani Willis, Howard’s former chief deputy, has raised more money and racked up key endorsements from the Atlanta Police Union, Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore and former Atlanta City Council member Mary Norwood, now chairwoman of the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods.

Three past or present female employees have sued Howard, alleging harassment or discrimination. The GBI is investigating his use of a nonprofit to funnel at least $140,000 in city of Atlanta funds to supplement his salary. The state ethics commission accuses him of 12 violations.

Howard says he is confident he’ll be exonerated by the GBI. As for the civil lawsuits facing him, he said, “I have not harassed anyone.”

The political peril Howard faced in 2000 followed the acquittal of NFL star Ray Lewis and two friends on murder charges. The case went to trial less than four months after the Buckhead street brawl that left two Decatur men dead. A CNN legal analyst compared Howard to bumbling Inspector Clouseau from “The Pink Panther.”

Former DeKalb County District Attorney J. Tom Morgan said current controversies could prove more politically damaging than the high profile trial defeat years ago.

“The public will forget about you losing a case,” Morgan said, “but they won’t forget stealing from the country treasury.”

Howard, now 68, has not been charged with any crimes.

Former colleagues become rivals

Howard hired both Willis and Christian Wise-Smith, another contender for the job. Willis in particular has made her former boss’ alleged conduct a major component of the campaign.

Willis, who once oversaw the office’s trial division, called Howard’s management style heavy-handed and said it’s led to high turnover among Fulton prosecutors.

“He’s lost a tremendous amount of talent,” said Atlanta criminal defense attorney Noah Pines, who worked under Howard for a just few months before quitting. “When you keep losing talent, to places offering less money, and it keeps happening, you’ve got to start questioning yourself.”

Pines, who has contributed financially to both Willis and Wise-Smith, called Howard “a notorious micro-manager.”

Howard pushed back against such claims during an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Turnover was 50 percent when he took over and is now down to 11 percent, he said.

“It’s a baseless claim that we can’t keep people in this office,” he said.

Almost from the beginning of his tenure, Howard has maintained a combative relationship with Fulton judges, whom he says are too lenient and perpetuated the ongoing problem of repeat offenders. Judges say the blame lies with often inexperienced prosecutors making unreasonable sentencing demands at Howard’s behest.

Howard has also engaged in public spats with law enforcement, as evidenced last year when the D.A. decided to consent to a signature bond for a suspect who allegedly exchanged gunfire with officers from APD’s SWAT unit. A month later, Howard paid for billboards seeking witnesses three recent officer-involved shootings, a move that left the rank and file wondering if he was “out to get” them, said Atlanta police Lt. Steve Zygaj. Howard said he was seeking clarity because there were different versions of what took place.

“Officers don’t have a good opinion of him because they think he’s tried to aggressively prosecute officers while being lenient on criminals,” said Ken Allen, national representative for the Atlanta Police Union.

Allen said officers have grown weary watching “younger, inexperienced attorneys getting beat up on a regular basis in the courtroom.”

“You hear it from criminals all the time,” Allen said. “They come to Fulton County to commit crimes because they won’t have to serve the time.”

Howard notes a 70 percent drop in crime during his tenure.

‘He puts in the work’

One of Howard’s biggest supporters began as a detractor.

“I didn’t like him at all,” said Kate Boccia, president and CEO of the National Incarceration Association. “He the one who locked my son up, after all.”

When Boccia’s son was sentenced in 2014 to 15 years for armed robbery without the possibility of parole, she began looking for ways to reduce his punishment.

“I knew I had to get to Paul Howard,” she said. She learned to her surprise that Howard had already been thinking about criminal justice reform. He agreed to modify the sentence and Boccia’s son was released after serving six years.

Howard has since appointed Boccia to the office’s Conviction Integrity Unit, which reviews past cases that may have been unfairly adjudicated.

“He puts in the work. He wants this to be his legacy,” said Boccia, who’s reserving judgment on the civil suits. “If it’s true, then things will have to work their way out accordingly.”

Longtime Howard supporter Gerald Durley said he has not discussed the suits or the GBI investigation with him.

“I have not observed that kind of behavior in private or in any of the public setting where I’ve been with him. My vote is going to be based on his performance in office,” said Durley, a civil rights leader. “He cares about the things I care about. And you always get an honest assessment from Paul.”

Will voters turn out?

With COVID-19 and the Brunswick area shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery dominating headlines, the race hasn’t generated much conversation outside political circles.

“I haven’t heard anyone talking about it,” Boccia said. “Most people don’t even know who the D.A. is.”

Howard has cultivated strong support with influential black clergy members, and Morgan said his support in the African American community runs deep.

“He’s built a solid base that’s stuck with him a long time,” Morgan said.

Pines said Willis, who recently debuted television ads, needs to maintain a strong offense.

“If the election was being decided in the courthouse, Fani would win in a landslide,” Pines said.

With three candidates in the June 9 primary, a runoff is possible.

“The record for incumbents in runoffs is not good,” Morgan said. “How many people are really paying attention? And are they going to turn out to vote?”

Howard said he has embraced what he calls “the Joe Biden model” of campaigning.

“Less is more,” he said. “I hope people look at the entirety of my time in office.”

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