Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard speaks during a press conference at the entrance to the Fulton County Justice Tower on June 7, 2013.

GBI to examine Fulton DA’s forfeiture spending

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation will conduct an independent review into spending by the Fulton County district attorney after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found he used money seized from criminal suspects to buy things that had little to do with putting criminals behind bars.

District Attorney Paul Howard requested the investigation on Monday, reversing a stance he took last week.

Also on Monday, members at a meeting of the state Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council considered backing legislation that would take the final say over state civil forfeiture spending out of the hands of district attorneys.

» Howard calls spending 'innovative'

“It’s not just our money. It’s the public’s money,” said council chair Fred Bright, Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit district attorney.

The developments come as a growing number of elected officials push to tighten rules on state civil forfeiture funds. The funds come from property seized from suspected criminals because law enforcement thinks it was used or intended for use in a crime. District attorneys may take a 10 percent cut.

Since the AJC investigation was published, Gov. Nathan Deal said he was asking his staff to look for ways to tighten spending controls.

Howard used tens of thousands of dollars during the past five years to buy tickets to charity balls, sporting events, office bashes, and a wrought-iron security door for his home, among other expenditures, the investigation found. All the while, Howard threatened to lay off staff if the county cut his budget.

Howard has defended his spending, which he said helped lower crime. Last week, he told the AJC that he would not ask for a GBI review because he had done nothing illegal.

Critics said that even if the spending was legal, they questioned whether it was ethical. State Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, said that state law was so weak that the money could be used as a slush fund.

He proposed a bill during the spring legislative session that would have made law enforcement provide more proof before seizing property, create more transparency and place more restrictions on how funds are spent. His effort died under staunch opposition from sheriffs.

During Monday’s meeting, staffers with the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council floated a possible change to state law that would place each jurisdiction’s money under control of a trustee. The trustee would reimburse a district attorney if an expense met newly-created state guidelines.

The funds would be subject to state audits and other safeguards. The PAC would publish itemized spending reports on its website.

In an interview after his appearance before the council, Howard said that such changes would not alter his spending habits. A trustee would approve his expenses just the same, he said.

“When people have gotten a clear understanding of the reasoning behind the expenditures … what I find is there is a definite feeling as to what was done was right,” Howard said.

He presented his own reform proposal during the council meeting: If a DA’s forfeiture spending comes under question, the council would create a five-member committee that would decide whether to call in the GBI.

That committee would include the district attorney who is under scrutiny. Council members criticized the proposal, saying any investigation should be conducted by an outside agency.

The council also voted unanimously Monday to write a letter to Gov. Nathan Deal supporting Howard’s request for the GBI investigation. The council itself has no authority to investigate prosecutors. The governor can request a GBI inquiry, or a DA can call in the agency.

Douglas County District Attorney David McDade took that step after an Atlanta television station reported last month that he used forfeiture money for perks, side jobs and internships to favored employees and their families.

Howard changed his mind about calling in GBI after consulting with council members, he said in the interview.

“I welcome the GBI, [Director] Vernon Keenan and his group. They’ve always done a fair job,” he said.

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