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GBI opens probe of Fulton DA Paul Howard over use of nonprofit funds

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard, who is accused of 12 violations of state public disclosure laws. (TYSON HORNE / TYSON.HORNE@AJC.COM)
Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard, who is accused of 12 violations of state public disclosure laws. (TYSON HORNE / TYSON.HORNE@AJC.COM)

The GBI has opened an investigation of Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard and his use of a nonprofit to funnel at least $140,000 in city of Atlanta funds to supplement his salary, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News have learned.

The criminal investigation comes at a time when Howard, Fulton's DA since 1997, is being challenged in the Democratic primary for reelection and is facing allegations of sexual harassment, which he strongly denies.

In a statement issued Monday, Howard predicted he will be cleared of any wrongdoing.

“This is not the first time what would be considered as an administrative matter for other Georgia elected officials is turned over to the GBI for investigation when it involves the Fulton County district attorney,” he said. This was in reference to the agency’s 2014 investigation of Howard’s use of money forfeited by criminals to pay for galas and dinners for his staff and their families.

In that GBI probe, prompted by media reports, “I was totally exonerated,” Howard said. As for the ongoing investigation, he said, “(I)f the facts are followed, it is my expectation that the result will be exactly the same.”

Howard said the timing of this investigation, weeks away from the June 9 primary, “is not lost on me.”

Howard is also facing a state ethics complaint for not disclosing he was a chief executive of the nonprofit, People Partnering for Progress, in personal financial statements. On April 15, the Georgia Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission charged Howard with a dozen disclosure violations, most of them involving PPP.

The GBI probe and the ethics complaint followed a report by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News about discrepancies between financial disclosures Howard filed with the state and tax filings submitted to the IRS by the nonprofit he heads as CEO.

This week, GBI agents were scheduled to visit Atlanta tax attorney Raymond Carpenter to review PPP’s records, Carpenter said. For years, Carpenter, a longtime friend of Howard’s, has served as the nonprofit’s chief financial officer.

The GBI was asked by the state Attorney General’s Office to conduct the investigation of Howard, agency spokeswoman Nelly Miles said. “At this point, that’s all we can say.”

Katie Byrd, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Chris Carr, confirmed that was the case but declined further comment.

Former DeKalb District Attorney Bob Wilson said he finds the investigation troubling.

“When you become the controversy, there’s a problem,” said Wilson, now a private attorney in Decatur. “I think a criminal investigation of a district attorney — that is a very sad state of affairs.”

A criminal probe of the prosecutor who heads Georgia’s largest and busiest district attorney’s office is highly unusual. But so was Howard’s decision to use PPP as a conduit to pad his salary by at least $170,000 from 2014 through 2017, according to tax records and the nonprofit’s own documents. (Howard’s annual salary, paid by the state and supplemented by the county, is roughly $175,000.)

Howard initially sought an $81,259 salary supplement from the city of Atlanta in a May 2014 letter he sent to then-Mayor Kasim Reed. At that time, Howard wrote, nine other DAs around the state were earning more than he was.

Howard did not get that annual supplement, but the city did present him with $125,000 checks in each of the next two years. In a previous statement, Howard said Reed tied the money to Howard’s efforts to address repeat criminal offenders and expand his community prosecutors’ program.

When contacted Monday, Reed said he had no comment.

It’s unclear whether the city knew how much of the $250,000 would go to Howard because he paid himself differing amounts from year to year. In 2015, he took in $50,000, then $20,000 in 2016 and $70,000 in 2017, the nonprofit’s tax filings show.

PPP’s most recent tax filing in 2018 did not disclose whether Howard received additional funds. Nonprofits do not have to provide detailed financial information for a year in which they collect less than $50,000 in contributions, which was the case for PPP that year.

On April 13, the AJC and Channel 2 filed an Open Records Act request with the city to determine how the funds were transferred to Howard and for documents relating to it. But City Hall, shut down because of the pandemic, has yet to produce the records.

In a statement issued last month, Howard said he deposited the city’s checks into the nonprofit’s account and then received checks to supplement his salary.

The arrangement is open to question because state law says only counties can supplement a district attorney’s state pay. In his statement, Howard said he tasked one of his former appellate attorneys to determine whether he could receive supplements from the city. He also provided a memo in which the attorney said there was no law prohibiting it.

But the July 2014 memo did not address the legality of Howard using a nonprofit to funnel city funds as a way to supplement his salary. PPP’s records say the nonprofit’s mission has been to reduce youth violence.

In his prior statement, Howard said the money he received from the city through PPP “represents reasonable compensation.” He also said that PPP’s involvement, through his supervision, in his office’s community prosecution program has been meaningful and had a positive impact.

Howard has been named in two sexual harassment complaints filed by county employees and another alleging gender discrimination. During a recent virtual pre-election forum, his two opponents, former Fulton chief deputy DA Fani Willis and Atlanta lawyer Christian Wise Smith, criticized Howard for the harassment allegations.

Wilson, DeKalb’s DA from 1981 to 1992, said he chaired and worked with child advocacy and rape crisis center nonprofits while he was in office.

If a nonprofit can help victims of crime, it’s appropriate for a district attorney to be involved, he said. At the same time, he added, “You would not undertake that with any idea of ever being paid.”

Wilson said he never asked for a raise while he was district attorney.

“You know what the job is,” he said. “You know what it pays, and if that’s not good enough for you and your family then seek other employment.”