Ex-Fulton prosecutor taking on old boss in DA race

Fulton County Chief Senior Assistant DA Fani Willis writes on a chart as she questions prosecution witness Sharron Pitts on Wednesday. (Kent D. Johnson, Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Fulton County Chief Senior Assistant DA Fani Willis writes on a chart as she questions prosecution witness Sharron Pitts on Wednesday. (Kent D. Johnson, Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

A former top lieutenant to Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard has entered the race against him. Howard is running for a seventh term.

Fani Willis, 48, says the office is broken and needs new leadership. She cited heavy turnover in the prosecutor’s ranks and a series of “distractions” linked to Howard, including recent allegations of sexual harassment.

“It’s unfortunate that we aren’t talking about public safety but instead the conduct of the county’s chief law enforcement officer,” said Willis, who once supervised the Fulton DA’s trial division. She prosecuted some of the county’s biggest cases in her 16 years with the office, including the Atlanta Public Schools’ cheating scandal.

Willis represents the stiffest challenge Howard has faced since first elected in 1996. He ran unopposed in 2016.

But Howard has been a lightning rod for criticism, tangling with county judges and other public safety officials in spats over repeat offenders and sentencing.

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Willis said she felt compelled to enter the race after hearing from a bevy of constituents and former colleagues over the past few months.

“I have gotten calls from South Fulton, North Fulton, Buckhead just begging me to run,” said Willis, who is giving up her job as South Fulton’s chief municipal court judge to run for district attorney.

The office is “broken,” she said — an indictment of Howard’s leadership style punctuated by heavy turnover. Most who have left “don’t believe they’ve been respected and appreciated,” Willis said.

“When you have that lack of retention you  create a safety hazard,” she said. “You’ve got too many young lawyers in that office without experience or training.”

Former Fulton assistant district attorney Charlie Bailey said frustration with Howard “has been building for quite awhile.”

Recent allegations of sexual harassment and gender discrimination by three women who work or worked for the office “may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Bailey said.

ExploreHoward has denied those allegations, pointing to an investigation, sanctioned by the county, that concluded the office’s former human resources director’s claims of sexual harassment, retaliation, and race discrimination were meritless.

Willis, he said, misrepresents his record, though he sidestepped the issue of turnover.

“Since 1997, I have worked to reduce the vacancy rate in my office from 50 percent down to a current all-time low of six percent,” Howard said in a statement. “Currently, the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office maintains 108 Assistant District Attorney positions and there are only five vacancies which developed within the last three weeks.”

Willis said she appreciates the difficulty of the job she seeks.

“I understand I’m not the only wise counsel in the room,” she said.