Fulton DA spent forfeiture funds on charity galas, office parties

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The Fulton District Attorney’s spending is possible because of the state’s decades-old civil forfeiture laws, which The Atlanta Journal Constitution previously found are vulnerable to abuse.

Each year, law enforcement agencies seize millions of dollars worth of cash, cars, and other property. District attorneys may take a 10 percent cut.

But the AJC found that procedures designed to make forfeitures more transparent don’t work, and critics say the laws give agencies an incentive to seize first and ask questions later.

Motorists said law enforcement agencies seized thousands of dollars in cash during traffic stops even though officers never established a crime took place.

Lawmakers tried to overhaul the law amid worries that agencies were spending money on flashy cars and other perks. Their bid failed after objections from sheriffs, who said problems were rare and the money was essential.

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard has used thousands of dollars from a little-known stash of public money to buy things that did not have much to do with putting crooks behind bars, but that burnished his image, let him hobnob with power brokers and even upgraded his home.

During the past five years, Howard spent $2,700 on wrought-iron security doors for his house. He bought $4,450 worth of tickets to the Bank of America Atlanta Football Classic. Some $6,000 went to a lawyers group that inducted him into its Hall of Fame.

Tens of thousands more went to office parties, black-tie affairs, and donations to well-connected churches and nonprofits.

Explore» DA calls spending 'innovative', explains some of purchases
Explore» Other Fulton district attorney spending

All the while, Howard complained to county commissioners that any cuts to his office could force him to lay off prosecutors.

Howard made these purchases with state civil forfeiture money, which is made up of funds seized because law enforcement thinks they are connected to drug dealing, racketeering or other crime. Often times, Howard’s office administrator requested the spending, which he and his underlings approved.

The public had little chance to scrutinize the purchases. While Georgia’s law enforcement agencies must issue yearly reports on forfeitures to post on a public website, district attorneys don’t. The AJC obtained spending records through public information requests that the Fulton DA took weeks to fulfill.

In an interview, Howard said that these purchases are the backbone of his office’s innovative approach to crime prevention. Thanks to these charity balls, the good works they funded, and relationships they fostered, the city is far safer than it was when he took office in 1997.

Children become law-abiding citizens. Battered women can find sanctuary at domestic violence shelters. The business community partners with prosecutors to stop crime.

“A lot of people will say, ‘That’s not directly related to law enforcement.’ But I think that’s exactly what state forfeiture funds are made for,” Howard said.

Howard called a Friday press conference in advance of this story’s publication to stress this point and say any purchases for his home were to increase security.

The spending is also legal, he said in the interview.

Georgia code says district attorneys can spend funds on “any and all necessary expenses for the operation of the office.” It does not say they have to spend them on prosecutions.

There’s little to keep spending in check, said State Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, who led an unsuccessful push in the past legislative session for an overhaul of current forfeiture laws.

“They just have free range as a slush fund to do what they want,” Willard said. Law enforcement agencies, which also receive the funds, face far more spending restrictions.

Fulton spending stands out

The office’s spending came to light after the AJC asked police, sheriffs and DAs in metro Atlanta and elsewhere in Georgia for records on how they used forfeiture proceeds from 2008 to 2012.

With other agencies, most of the spending — but not all— showed a clear connection to fighting crime.

Atlanta police expenses included helicopter repair, rental cars for undercover investigations and a funeral for an officer who died in the line of duty.

The Cobb district attorney’s office paid for specialized DNA testing, computer software, books and professional dues.

Expenses by DeKalb’s current DA included $20,000 to the county rape crisis center and $16,000 for an event about crime against senior citizens.

Some other expenses’ relevance to crime fighting was not as clear-cut. DeKalb’s previous DA organized a $25,000 mentorship conference and luncheon for girls. A spokeswoman for the former DA told the AJC it was a “training expense.”

Gwinnett’s DA did not accept any state forfeiture money at all. He says he does it to avoid conflicts of interests that could arise if his office relies on proceeds from the drug trade.

The Fulton District Attorney’s Office stands in stark contrast.

Between 2008 and 2012, the office spent some $344,000 in state forfeiture funds, according to its records.

About $115,000 paid for the office’s internship program, but a large portion of the office’s state forfeiture spending — $39,000 — went for tickets, sponsorships and donations to functions hosted by well-connected nonprofits and churches, an AJC examination found.

Howard said the events gave his lawyers opportunities to do crucial networking they couldn’t afford on a public servant’s salary. And while the organizations may call these events “galas,” they aren’t as fancy as they seem, he said.

“Don’t let the name fool you,” Howard said.

Many beneficiaries had no direct crime-fighting mission. They include the Professional Football Mothers Association, the Lupus Foundation of America, Meals on Wheels, the American Jewish Foundation, Antioch Baptist Church North, and a charity founded by retired NBA player Dikembe Mutombo that brings better health care to the Congo.

Among last year’s expenditures, the office paid $1,525 to attend events hosted by the Atlanta Business League, which fosters business development in the black community.

That’s more than twice the amount of state forfeiture funds Howard’s office gave to the Partnership Against Domestic Violence during the past five years, records show.

Other metro Atlanta district attorneys use campaign funds—not forfeiture proceeds—to attend high-profile events and make donations.

“I don’t have to do what other DAs do,” Howard said. “What we have to do is follow the law.”

Other sizable chunks of state forfeiture money paid for perks for Howard’s employees, which he said showed them he appreciates their hard work. Over the past five years, the spending included $20,000 for office parties and retreats and some $22,000 for meals and other food. Some $2,475 went to the office softball team.

The DA hosted forfeiture-funded holiday galas at the Carter Center and a Victorian-era mansion with catered food and professional photographers. In 2011,the office bought $1,665 worth of plaques to give out during the yearly party.

Howard emphasized attendees paid $10 each for drinks and no forfeiture funds paid for alcohol.

Nearly $10,000 went to dinners for employees and their families at a St. Simons Island restaurant. Records described the visits as staff retreats to foster better “morale and productivity.” In 2012, the office spent $1,656 for ribeye steak alone.

And $800 paid for Howard's staff office to attend a private screening of the Jamie Foxx action flick "Law Abiding Citizen." The stated purpose: "Discussion of a film highlighting prosecution and ethics," according to records.

Forfeiture money even paid for two parking tickets, according to records. One car was ticketed while a staffer attended a burglary task force meeting in Atlanta. The other was ticketed while a Fulton investigator was at DeKalb superior court.

Other purchases raised the office’s profile. In 2012, the district attorney’s office spent nearly $1,300 to submit a video produced by the office to a regional Emmy competition, purchase award ceremony tickets and buy plaques, receipts show.

Money spent at Howard’s home was classified as security expenses. The wrought-iron French doors, purchased in 2012, featured Italian-style scrollwork over glass. An additional $5,730 purchased cameras, a special system that allows Howard to watch his home while he is away, and other home security.

Howard said he needed the home security because of multiple death threats against his family and contended that wrought iron doors can lower the value of a house. If he leaves public office, he said, the new DA can have them.

Regardless, focusing on security expenses and galas obscures the true impact of his office’s forfeiture spending, Howard said. Youth scholarships and education programs help law enforcement.

“The purpose is to prevent crime. The best way is education,” Howard said.

The Atlanta Football Classic tickets were for kids in an educational program about the legal system, documents show.

Atlanta elementary school students with perfect attendance won $1,164 worth of jerseys for the Orlando Magic, the team where Howard’s famous nephew Dwight Howard played for eight years. Howard paid $54.95 for 20 adult, extra-large shirts, plus $65.40 for overnight shipping.

An additional $5,000 of forfeiture money was paired with a $10,000 donation from the Dwight Howard Foundation to buy students bicycles, too.

Howard’s actions are textbook examples of what happens when forfeiture spending takes place without adequate public scrutiny, said Dick Carpenter, director of strategic research at the Institute for Justice.

“When you have low transparency, you create potential for all kinds of mischief,” Carpenter said. “That’s what we’re seeing here.”

Commissioners surprised

The expenditures surprised Fulton county commissioners, who said there are wiser ways to spend public dollars. A government office should prioritize purchases for training, equipment and other things that help it fulfill its mission, said Fulton Commissioner Robb Pitts.

“At a minimum, I would say it sends the wrong message,” Pitts said.

Fulton Commissioner William “Bill” Edwards said that if he knew about the purchases, he would have questioned Howard.

“Even if you have the right to spend money any way want to, you have to be very careful about perception.” Edwards said.

Federal rules also advise agencies to avoid the appearance of impropriety. These guidelines, which were drafted after abuse complaints across the nation, are more stringent than state rules.

They don’t apply to money seized under Georgia law, but Howard says he uses them for state forfeitures because he wants to hold his office to a higher standard.

But it’s unclear whether the DA is following them. Federal rules bar most food purchases and donations. They also warn against any appearance of extravagance or use of the funds for political or personal purposes.

"Tickets to social events, hospitality suites at conferences, or meals outside of the per diem are impermissible uses of shared funds," U.S. Department of Justice guidelines state.

A county audit report found violations of the less-stringent state rules.

That report, issued in January 2012, found the prosecutor’s office failed to fully explain its 2011 expenditures. It also spent on children’s meals, holiday awards and other things that auditors said were not allowed under state law.

Howard disagreed with most of the audit’s findings and asked auditors to keep their distance.

“I would ask that you first make me aware that a spot audit is being conducted and forward any questions regarding expenditures to me,” he replied in a written response.

“Please refrain from contacting my staff directly,” the letter added.

Howard said his office has a “model system” for expenditures, which includes yearly county audits, a finance committee, and an improved system of checks and balances.

Audits in 2007 and 2008 also sounded alarms about spending of forfeiture funds. The AJC reported in 2007 that thousands of dollars in these and other funds were used for celebrations and galas.

Wide latitude for DAs

The back-and-forth between Howard and auditors highlights the difficulty of putting checks and balances on state forfeiture fund spending.

Money used by police and sheriffs cannot be used for salaries or rewards, but may be used for law enforcement, victim and witness services, or a law enforcement museum.

District attorneys have no such restrictions. And because many officials who control forfeiture money are elected, they have wide latitude to spend the money as they see fit, Fulton commissioners said.

The law does allow county commissioners to block DAs from receiving the money, but Fulton finance officials say no county policy requires Howard to follow audit recommendations.

“At the end of the day, it’s between you and your voter. Whether it’s legal or illegal, all of us run in four years,” said Commissioner Edwards.

Still, there are ways to address questionable spending.

Douglas County District Attorney David McDade asked the Georgia Bureau of Investigation for an independent review of his office’s finances after WAGA-TV reported he used forfeiture funds for perks, side jobs and internships to favored employees and their families.

The Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council can also ask the governor’s office to direct state auditors to look into DA spending, said member Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter.

The best approach is prevention, said Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association. As a DA in southern Utah, Burns created a board of law-enforcement officials that voted on spending.

Forfeiture is supposed to hurt the drug trade, Burns said. The only responsible purchases are for training, equipment, and programs such as drug treatment and education that help the cause.

“I can tell you, in my world — unequivocally — no one would have voted for parking tickets or black-tie events,” Burns said.