OPINION: Paul Howard’s generational curse isn’t biblical, it’s political

Longtime Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard. (TYSON HORNE / Tyson.Horne@AJC.com)

As it turns out, electoral challenges to Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard are generational.

The last time anyone ran against Howard was in the fall of 2000, when John Turner, a former colleague, neighbor and friend, switched parties and ran against him as a Republican.

That election occurred after Howard, a first-term DA and rusty litigator, returned to the courtroom to try NFL star Ray Lewis in a murder case, a prosecution that imploded on Court TV. All three defendants from the double murder walked.

At the time, there were growing complaints about Howard being a micromanager and the exodus of young prosecutorial talent from his office. Turns out, those complaints were generational too.

Howard beat Turner 54% to 46% and hasn’t had to worry since about a primary or general election challenge — until now.

Fani Willis, who was one of Howard's star prosecutors during the mammoth Atlanta Public Schools cheating trial, is challenging Howard in the June 9 Democratic primary. Also in the running is former Fulton prosecutor Christian Wise Smith. He and Willis must have sensed the impermeable Howard was suddenly vulnerable. In recent months, three women have leveled sexual harassment and discrimination allegations against the 68-year-old DA, who is seeking his seventh term.

And to make things worse — for him — the GBI is investigating whether Howard was padding his six-figure salary with $170,000 in Atlanta funds that passed through a nonprofit that was set up to reduce youth violence.

He also faces ethics charges on failing to document those payments in state financial disclosure forms. To be sure, it's never good to be investigated by the GBI or ethics probers when an election is just a couple of weeks away.

We?re learning names of some city officials past and present interviewed by the GBI as part of its criminal investigation of the Fulton County DA.

Howard, in an interview Thursday, strongly denied he did anything wrong with the cash or to his former employees. He said there’s a sinister coincidence in the offing.

“I’ve been in office 23 years,” he said. “Why is all this stuff coming in an election year?”

Willis has up until recently tiptoed around the allegations, probably wanting to stay above the fray while her opponent gets hammered from outside forces.

But she has stepped it up in the past week. During an online forum Wednesday, she alluded to the GBI investigation, saying, “Right now, you should be very concerned that if the current DA gets elected, he will be removed under the allegations he is facing.”

And she has money for TV ads and last-minute flyers that can further damage her opponent.

Noah Pines, a former prosecutor who is supporting Willis, told me, “If there’s ever a time that Paul Howard is in trouble, it’s now. The only question is whether the public is paying attention.”

Howard has always been a solid politician, working the African American preachers for support. (All three candidates are black.) But he also comes across as plodding, tone-deaf and inflexible, assured in his righteousness.

He has always portrayed himself as hard on crime and has several times sought and received death penalty convictions, despite the long-held narrative that Fulton juries just would not go there.

Howard touted his implementing of a conviction integrity unit — which goes back to look at cases in which there might be wrong convictions — and a program aimed at trying to steer repeat juvenile offenders from their disastrous paths.

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard invited a few hundred people to a banquet Wednesday to celebrate his office’s new Conviction Integrity Unit.

But his bald visage has for many come to represent dysfunction in Fulton County's criminal justice system, one that has led to clogged courts and repeat offenders getting out to continue to ply their trade. There is enough blame to pass around between police, prosecutors and judges. Nevertheless, this problem — which, too, is generational — has lead some anti-crime citizens groups to seek a change and support Willis.

Willis has more than doubled the sitting incumbent in fundraising during the past three months, amassing about $150,000 to Howard’s $70,000. Smith, meanwhile, raised about $55,000 in the same period, which is not bad for a newbie.

Fulton County district attorney candidates Fani Willis (top right), incumbent Paul Howard (bottom left) and Christian Wise-Smith (bottom right) participated recently in a virtual forum held online via Zoom. Atlanta radio personality Rashad Richey (top left) moderated.

Credit: Christian Boone/cboone@ajc.com

Credit: Christian Boone/cboone@ajc.com

About 30 of Howard’s contributors are his current employees. He also got support from establishment African American business leaders, such as car dealer Gregory Baranco, airport concessionaire Mack Wilbourn and popular undertaker Willie Watkins.

Howard also got the maximum contribution from fans of his work, including the maximum $2,800 from Waffle House Chairman Joe Rogers Jr., whose former maid and two lawyers were tried on criminal charges that they made an illegal sex tape of Rogers. The three were acquitted but Mr. Smothered and Covered was no doubt happy with Howard's effort.

And businessman Billy Corey gave $1,000. Corey’s close friend and employee, Diane McIver, was killed by her husband, Tex, in 2016. Tex claimed he fatally shot his wife by accident, but Howard’s office sent him away on murder charges.

Fani Willis, shown here as a lead prosecutor during the Atlanta Public Schools cheating trial, is running to unseat her former boss as Fulton County district attorney. (Kent Johnson/ AJC 2015 file photo)

As for Willis, many of her contributors are former employees of Howard’s. In fact, Turner, Howard’s opponent from two decades ago, gave Willis $1,000 this week.

Turner said Willis’ 2-1 lead in money, plus underdog Smith’s ability to raise as much as he did, “says a helluva lot.” It says people are hankering for someone other than Howard to be Fulton’s DA.

Howard “came to office with some good ideas, like computerizing files and starting specialty units,” Turner said.

“But 20 years later, with judges complaints (against Howard) and the revolving door in his office, it’s time for a change,” he said.

“And if you can’t beat him with all the negative stuff out there, then he’s unbeatable.”

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