Howard, former deputies spar in Fulton DA debate

Paul Howard (bottom left) faced off in a virtual debate Monday with two former deputies seeking to replace him as Fulton County District Attorney. Fani Willis (top right) and Christian Wise-Smith (bottom right) accused their former boss of running a dysfunctional, ineffective office.
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Paul Howard (bottom left) faced off in a virtual debate Monday with two former deputies seeking to replace him as Fulton County District Attorney. Fani Willis (top right) and Christian Wise-Smith (bottom right) accused their former boss of running a dysfunctional, ineffective office.

Paul Howard’s former chief deputy came out swinging Monday night at a virtual forum for candidates for Fulton County District Attorney, accusing her old boss of presiding over a “broken office.”

“He believes after 24 years that the office is his and that the citizen serve at his pleasure,” said Fani Willis, who once supervised the Fulton DA’s trial division.

She presents a rare challenge for Howard, who has typically faced token opposition in past campaigns. Christian Wise-Smith, another former Fulton assistant district attorney, is also vying for the Democratic nomination.

RELATED: Ex-Fulton prosecutor taking on old boss in DA race

Howard ran unopposed in 2016.

“What we need is stable, experienced, innovative leadership,” said the six-term incumbent.

He took credit for a 70 percent reduction in violent crime since he was first elected in 1997.

“We’ve rebuilt and modernized the DA’s office,” he said.

But Willis, who gave up her job as South Fulton’s chief municipal court judge to run against Howard, said her former supervisor’s tenure has been marked by dysfunction. Talented prosecutors are turning down better pay, and a higher profile, because they can’t work for Howard, she said.

“People should not leave Atlanta to go work in Henry County,” Willis said. “It is a huge problem when you cannot attract and retain the best and brightest minds.”

Wise-Smith said Howard leads by fear. Staffers are “scared of being reprimanded, afraid of being harassed,” he said.

It was the first reference to a trio of recent workplace harassment lawsuits filed by female employees past and present. Howard’s attorney says it’s no coincidence the complaints were made in an election year.

RELATED: Former records clerk alleges sexual harassment by Fulton DA

Howard also stands accused of 12 public disclosure violations by the state ethics commission. The decision followed reporting by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News on discrepancies between personal financial disclosures Howard filed with the state and tax filings submitted to the IRS by a nonprofit he heads.

“We will not waste your  taxpayer dollars for litigation for misconduct by me or any of my staff,” Willis said.

Howard did not discuss the allegations against him, though he disputed claims of a toxic work environment.

“It seems like they’re talking about a place that’s not the Fulton DA’s office,” he said.“No way you can maintain a conviction rate of 92 percent if you don’t have good employees.”

Each of the candidates staked their claim for progressive votes.

Wise-Smith vowed to eliminate cash bail, which he said “disproportionately discriminates against black people and poor people.”

“Right now the system is set up as conviction by any means necessary,” Wise-Smith said. “That’s not justice. That’s not fair.”

Howard boasted of newly created units dedicated to remedying wrongful convictions and reaching recidivist minor offenders.

“We have made a point to give people second chances,” he said.

Willis said Howard’s the new programs were “created with insincerity in an election year.”

She promised to boost investigations prior to indictments, claiming “people have sat in jail who never should have been there because the evidence is not there.”

“The way business is being done now ... it’s not working,” Willis said.

Voters will go to the polls on June 9, with the winner all but assured of a general election victory in Fulton, a Democratic stronghold.