Fulton County DA leads one investigation and is the subject of another

Fulton D.A. Paul Howard speaks during a press conference at Fulton County Superior Courthouse on Wednesday, June 17, 2020. The former Atlanta police officer who shot and killed Rayshard Brooks was charged Wednesday with felony murder and 10 other offenses in his death, the Fulton County District Attorney's Office said. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Fulton D.A. Paul Howard speaks during a press conference at Fulton County Superior Courthouse on Wednesday, June 17, 2020. The former Atlanta police officer who shot and killed Rayshard Brooks was charged Wednesday with felony murder and 10 other offenses in his death, the Fulton County District Attorney's Office said. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard is investigating the shooting death of Rayshard Brooks at the same time he’s the subject of an investigation himself.

The confluence of two ongoing GBI investigations — one that Howard says is helping him, another that targets him — has sparked calls for Howard to get out of the Brooks case altogether.

“He should step aside as Fulton County DA until the GBI investigation of himself is complete,” said Georgia State University law professor Clark Cunningham. “Atlanta’s chief law enforcement official should not be making unreviewable decisions about who to prosecute in this critical moment — for example in the Brooks shooting — while under the cloud of possibly being a felon himself.”

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The GBI is conducting a criminal investigation of Howard at the request of Attorney General Chris Carr. Its focus is Howard's use of a nonprofit to funnel city of Atlanta grant money to his personal bank account.

In both 2014 and 2016, the city wrote $125,000 checks to People Partnering for Progress, a nonprofit dedicated to stemming youth violence and which is headed by Howard as its CEO. Over a five-year period, the nonprofit wrote a series of checks totaling $195,000 to Howard, who pocketed the money.

Howard, whose office declined comment Thursday, has said the money was approved by the city to supplement his salary. He has also said he expects to be fully exonerated.

During his press conference announcing criminal charges in the Brooks shooting, Howard said the GBI was working with his office. The bureau was brought in at the request of the Atlanta Police Department after Officer Garrett Rolfe, since fired, shot and killed Brooks in a Wendy's parking lot on University Avenue. Rolfe was booked Friday on 11 counts, including felony murder, and is being held without bond. He is due in Fulton County Magistrate Court at noon Friday.

Officer Devin Brosnan, charged with aggravated assault and three counts of violation of oath in the same case, was booked Thursday and released on a $50,000 signature bond.

Howard’s announcement that he’d obtained arrest warrants against Rolfe and Brosnan was praised by Brooks’ family, their legal team and others who have closely followed the case.

But the GBI released a pointed statement saying the agency had not been consulted. Once its “impartial and thorough investigation” is finished, the bureau will submit its file to the Fulton DA’s office, the GBI said.

Critics including a U.S. congressman and a fellow DA have called for Howard to exit the case.

Many noted Howard jumped ahead of the GBI at a time he is being challenged for reelection by Fani Willis, his former chief deputy prosecutor. Howard finished second to Willis on June 9 and the runoff is Aug. 11.

In a comment on Facebook, Willis condemned Howard for moving so swiftly.
“Rushing to judgment prior to a completed GBI investigation is a great way to get this community and more importantly (this) beautiful family to never receive justice,” she wrote.
Howard, who moved to charge Rolfe and Brosnan less than a week after Brooks’ death, has previously been accused of dragging his feet when deciding whether to bring charges involving alleged police brutality.
U.S. Rep. Doug Collins has called for Howard to be taken off the case.

"Charging an Atlanta police officer with felony murder before the completion of the GBI's investigation was a political decision, not a legal one," said Collins, who is running for U.S. Senate. "I'm calling on Attorney General Chris Carr to appoint an independent district attorney in the case of Rayshard Brooks to ensure Georgians have complete confidence that this case is devoid of any and all political influence."

In response, the AG’s Office said it can appoint another prosecutor only when a DA disqualifies himself or herself from a case or when a judge issues a disqualification order.

Atlanta lawyer Noah Pines, who represents Rolfe, said Howard violated the rules of professional conduct by saying far too much about the allegations during his news conference. 

"Never in my career have I seen a district attorney act so unethically without regard for his professional obligations in pursuit of reelection," Pines said.

Parks White, district attorney of the Northern Judicial Circuit, also said Howard’s remarks went too far.

“I wish Mr. Howard had not made all the statements he did,” White said. “He’s prohibited from saying things that have a substantial likelihood of heightening the public condemnation of the accused. He should be conflicted out of the case.”

Others complimented Howard.

“I want to thank Paul Howard personally and commend him,” attorney Shean Williams said Wednesday.

Williams represents Melvin Evans, whose SUV was struck by one of three bullets fired by Rolfe in the Wendy’s parking lot a week ago. Evans and two others from  Memphis, Tenn., feared for their lives when the shots were fired, Williams said.

“Mr. Howard is one of the few prosecutors who will go on the line to even investigate something like this, as serious as this,” he said. “To do it in a way that makes this city proud.”