Rival takes on salacious talk fill ex-DA Howard’s sexual harassment trial

Plaintiff Cathy Carter and the former Fulton district attorney both testify during the first day of trial
Ex-Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard is being sued by a former paralegal and records supervisor. (Bob Andres/AJC)

Credit: Bob Andres/AJC

Credit: Bob Andres/AJC

Ex-Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard is being sued by a former paralegal and records supervisor. (Bob Andres/AJC)

Former Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard and his ex-employee Cathy Carter both acknowledge a sexual relationship during a long-running “flirty friendship,” but that’s where their agreement ends.

They don’t agree on when they met, when their sexual encounters began or ended, or — crucially — whether Howard ever knew or believed his advances were unwelcome.

The trial is underway in Carter’s civil suit against Howard alleging sexual harassment and discrimination. Howard and Carter both testified Thursday before a jury of eight men and four women in the court of Senior U.S. District Judge Thomas Thrash at the Richard B. Russell Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in downtown Atlanta.

Carter worked for Howard for roughly 15 years while he was DA — a position in which he served from 1997 through 2020, when he lost his reelection bid to Fani Willis.

Carter took early retirement in 2012, then returned to another job in his office in 2014. She was fired in June 2019 after ending her unofficial relationship with Howard, her lawsuit says. She filed suit in April 2020.

Carter said Howard called in 2014 offering a new position, which she accepted because she needed money. Howard said it was Carter who asked to return to the DA’s office and that she went through the normal hiring process.

Both sides in the case rely heavily on rival interpretations of a recorded phone conversation from August 24, 2018, between Carter and Howard. The defense played the recording during its opening statement.

It switches from talk of office issues to graphic sexual references, with Howard seemingly pressing Carter to have sex, while she laughs and deflects him.

Howard’s defense maintains such talk was characteristic joking between longtime friends.

“It’s just her personality, and the way she talked,” said Noah Green, attorney for Howard.

Carter asserts it’s evidence that he constantly pressured her for sex and that she feared on-the-job retaliation if she rejected him outright.

“With me having children and a single parent, I didn’t want to lose my job,” she said, crying.

Howard said engaging in risqué talk was “stupidity” on his part, but also “exciting” for a man in his 60s when she showed interest in return. He said she often initiated sexual jokes and never told him to stop, but that he would have if he knew she found it offensive.

Carter, in contrast, said Howard always initiated sexual discussions. Under questioning by defense attorney Annarita McGovern, Carter said Howard wouldn’t have known from her laughing responses that his advances were unwelcome, but that she did turn down sex many times and tried to avoid him at work.

“I told him what he wanted to hear,” she said.

McGovern scoffed at Carter’s claim that her conversation with Howard was accidentally recorded. Carter maintained she didn’t know she had it until “they went through my phone,” apparently meaning attorneys.

Carter said she met Howard in 1995 or 1996. He places their meeting in 1989 or 1990 — an essential distinction, because he says their acknowledged sexual relationship happened entirely before she came to work for him in the DA’s office in 2000. Carter says it didn’t begin until 2005 or 2006, and continued until she ended it in late 2018.

Between 2016 and 2018 they had sex 20 or more times, including in the DA’s office, she said. Howard denied “emphatically” that the two ever had sex in his office, arguing that doing so would have been impractical due to the constant proximity of other employees.

Carter’s suit alleges she was placed on probation on spurious grounds after firmly refusing sex with Howard, and fired in June 2019.

McGovern noted that during more than a decade of supposed sexual pressure, Carter never filed a harassment complaint despite signing state, county and DA’s office policies informing her how to do so through outside agencies. Nor were there any other witnesses presented to testify about 15 years of purported “constant, perpetual” harassment, McGovern said.

In January 2019, Carter was arrested for trying to bring her handgun — accidentally, she said — through security at the Fulton County Courthouse. Green said she wasn’t fired or even punished by Howard, but in April 2019 she was again arrested in Clayton County, this time for allegedly threating a man with her gun at a gas station. She claimed he had found $400 she had lost, and promised to return it but had not after several weeks. That charge was dropped in February 2022, according to court records.

“God fought my battle. The gentleman got killed robbing somebody,” Carter said on the stand Thursday.

In April 2019, she was put on an “improvement plan” due to chronic lateness and absences. In the subsequent 65 days she was absent twice and late 47 days, Green told jurors.

Carter says her frequent lateness was due to attempts to avoid Howard.

Her June 2019 termination letter, shown as evidence, cites her assault charge from Clayton County. Carter told the court she didn’t believe her two gun-related arrests within six months were unacceptable for a DA’s office employee.

The parties have rival interpretations of multiple incidents.

Carter said her older son is in frequent legal trouble, “in and out of jail.” In May 2016, she asked Howard to call Victor Hill, then sheriff of Clayton County, to help get her son out of jail. He was released two days later and Carter thanked Howard via text.

“You’re welcome. Send a picture,” he replied — which her attorneys interpret to mean a nude picture, which she sent. Carter said she had also sent Howard a nude picture before.

Howard said he merely called Hill to ask about Carter’s son’s status, and that he was requesting a picture of Carter reuniting with her son outside the jail.

Lawyers showed a picture of a lingerie set Carter said Howard bought her around 2017.

“I had to put it on for him and model it, right before we had sex,” she said.