(CNN) — Paul L. Howard Jr. sat in a Burke County, Georgia, courtroom with his classmates to watch a trial for a school lesson when he was about 14 years old.
The case involved two Black defendants and a White alleged victim, who told the all-White jury, “If my gun had not stuck, those two [n-word] wouldn’t be here in court today.”
“I can still hear him saying that,” Howard told CNN.
Howard said that incident spurred him to become a prosecutor.
Today, as district attorney for Fulton County, Georgia’s most populous county, Howard is no stranger to high-profile cases. Lately, however, Howard himself has been the center of national attention after he swiftly charged two White Atlanta police officers in the fatal shooting of Rayshard Brooks, a Black man.
Brooks’s death has reignited nationwide protests over race and policing that were sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
But the charges have also drawn accusations that Howard — whose ongoing campaign for another term in office is already dogged by controversy — charged the officers for political benefit.
Howard denies these allegations.
As he dodges criticism amid a run for a 7th term, here are five things to know about Howard.
He is Georgia’s first Black elected district attorney
Howard was elected to the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office in 1996, becoming Georgia’s first elected African American district attorney.
When Howard took office in January 1997, he said the county and Atlanta were “beset with crime.” He vowed to reduce it.
Today Howard touts a higher conviction rate, which he says is 92%. His office has created several prosecution units, including those focused on crimes against women and children, white collar crime and cold cases.
Howard has established programs to prevent crime and reduce recidivism rates. The latest is Project Level Up, a program with the public defender’s office and the juvenile court system that focuses on repeat juvenile offenders.
Another Howard initiative includes the Conviction Integrity Unit, which reviews cases and overturns wrongful convictions. This year, an inmate serving a life sentence on a drug offense was released after two decades in prison.
Howard said the rates of violent crime and overall crime in Atlanta have dropped significantly since he took office. Howard also said he has reduced the Fulton County jail population by half since taking office, saving taxpayers millions of dollars.
He’s prosecuted high-profile cases, including Ray Lewis’ murder trial
One well known case from early in his 23-year tenure was the trial of NFL player Ray Lewis, who was charged with murder along with two companions in connection with the deaths of two men following a post-Super Bowl celebration in early 2000.
By many accounts, the trial did not go well for Howard. His office eventually dropped the murder charges against Lewis, who pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and agreed to testify against his two co-defendants. In the end, both were acquitted.
“The story of that case is a great example of what happens when a prosecutor rushes to judgment without having all the facts,” said Page Pate, a Georgia criminal defense attorney.
Howard dismissed claims he rushed the case. “It could be 10 years down the road, and that’s what a defense attorney will say: ‘You rushed to judgment,'” Howard said.
The Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal, one of US public education’s largest ever, represents another prominent case for Howard. Eleven of 12 defendants — including executive administrators, a principal and four teachers — were convicted of racketeering and other charges.
“He got a lot of criticism about bringing that case, about prosecuting those teachers,” said Pate, who represented one of the teachers. But Pate also credits Howard for how he allowed his prosecutors to handle the case, including then-prosecutor Fani Willis, who is now running to unseat her former boss.
He’s in a runoff election for his 7th term
Howard is fighting to keep his office.
He’s in a run-off election against Willis after he came in second in the Democratic primary earlier this month — he obtained 35% of the vote to Willis’s 42%. In Georgia, elections go into a run-off if no candidate collects 50% of the vote in a primary.
"It is totally incorrect to say it's political."
Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard responds to criticism that his decision to charge two officers involved in the killing of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta was politically motivated. https://t.co/rO3lTqfvi7 pic.twitter.com/4wJcrL16Nw
— CNN (@CNN) June 19, 2020
Howard’s performance, coupled with the speedy charges against Atlanta police officers, has resulted in accusations he charged the officers in the Brooks case because it could benefit him politically.
In a statement last week, the Georgia Sheriff’s Association called the charges a “grandstanding vote-seeking tactic,” and said they were “more about (Howard’s) re-election than justice for the officers involved, the Atlanta Police Department and the citizens of our state.”
Pate likened the case to a “political gift” for Howard. “He is running as fast as he can to make prosecutorial decisions that may at the end of the day be the correct decisions,” Pate said, “But make no mistake, the timing is driven by the politics.”
“I think that’s ridiculous,” Howard told CNN when asked about the claim. He said the case would be his office’s 40th case charging a police officer, nine of which involved the death of someone by police.
Some have complained Howard did not wait for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to complete its investigation in the Brooks shooting. Howard said his office has no obligation to wait.
“The DA’s office is an independent office. We’ve got our own investigators, our own lawyers. So when we get cases, we don’t make decisions based upon what somebody else says,” he told CNN.
One criticism of Howard is he is a micromanager, forcing prosecutors to run decisions through him for his approval, according to Atlanta criminal defense attorney Bruce Harvey, who has represented clients charged by Howard’s office, including one of the defendants in the Ray Lewis case.
Harvey said Howard’s management style is dysfunctional and inefficient, particularly for a DA’s office in a major metropolitan area.
“It affects the community, it affects families and it affects the perception of whether or not justice is being done in the courts and in this community,” said Harvey, who supports Willis and has contributed to her campaign.
Senior Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter, who presided over the cheating trial, said in an email that Howard’s “leadership style” has resulted in lawyers quitting and going to work for other DA’s offices, calling it a “real shame” for the county.
Howard, calling the critique “strange,” said the office changed so a line attorney cannot dismiss a case without a supervisor’s permission. Before, he said, cases got dismissed that shouldn’t have.
“It is the district attorney who has to answer for those cases, and not the line attorneys,” he said.
He’s under investigation by the GBI and has been accused of ethics violations
Complicating his chances of re-election is the fact that Howard is under criminal investigation by the GBI.
GBI spokeswoman Nelly Miles told CNN the agency began a criminal investigation of Howard following an April request by the state Attorney General’s office. The GBI would not confirm why it is investigating and declined to comment further.
Howard said he “didn’t have anything to hide.”
Howard has been accused of 14 ethics violations by the state ethics commission after he failed to disclose his roles in non-profit organizations in financial disclosure reports.
According to a complaint by the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, between 2015 and 2019 Howard did not disclose that he was the CEO of two nonprofit organizations, including one called People Partnering for Progress.
Citing tax filings, the ethics commission complaint says over several years Howard paid himself at least $165,000 — supplemental income he never reported in his financial disclosure reports.
The AJC previously reported Howard received the money in two grants from the city of Atlanta because he felt he was underpaid.
In response to the GBI investigation and the ethics complaint, Howard told CNN he believes he will be “totally exonerated.”
Howard said he did not make the disclosures in the financial report because he didn’t know it was necessary and said he has since amended those filings.
Howard confirmed he received the “salary supplements” from the city, and he sent then-Mayor Kasim Reed a letter indicating the money would be “administered by the non-profit.”
“I have not done anything wrong,” he said.
He’s been accused of sexual misconduct and gender discrimination
Howard faces another set of allegations. Three women who work for him, or previously did so, have filed lawsuits accusing Howard of sexual misconduct and harassment and gender discrimination.
In a lawsuit filed in February, Jasmine Younge, Howard’s deputy chief of staff and director of policy and programs, accused Howard of discriminating against her after she told him that she was pregnant and that it was considered high risk.
The lawsuit claims Howard immediately began looking to replace Younge. He excluded her from meetings and reassigned her duties, according to the lawsuit.
Two weeks after Younge notified Howard that she was pregnant, Howard asked for her resignation, the lawsuit says. When she refused, she says she was terminated.
Another lawsuit filed in April alleges Howard used his authority to pressure another employee, Cathy Carter, for sex, including by helping her son “resolve multiple criminal issues.” When Carter relented, she was promoted, the lawsuit says.
This went on because Carter, the lawsuit says, feared retaliation, but when she refused Howard’s alleged advances she was moved to a different office building with a different job.
Another suit, filed in May by human resources director Tisa Grimes, accuses Howard of sexual harassment, alleging he repeatedly made uninvited sexual comments and groped her.
Howard allegedly threatened to remove Grimes from her position while continuing the alleged harassment, the lawsuit says. After Grimes filed an equal employment opportunity complaint against Howard, he sent her to another office building and stripped her of her title and duties as retaliation, according to the lawsuit.
According to the AJC, an independent investigation sanctioned by Fulton County determined the allegations by Grimes were unfounded.
Howard did not address the specifics of each of the lawsuits but said they were politically motivated. Howard pointed out the lawsuits were all filed “within weeks of the general election,” referring to them as “campaign suits.”
“I think people can see through it,” he said. “Guy’s been in office for 23 years and then a month or two before the election these harassment suits are filed.”
“I believe that Atlanta is probably the best place to lead the rest of the world in changing what is going on with policing in this country,” the district attorney said. “And I’m looking forward to being a part of that process.”
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