Despite claims of innocence made by his lawyers, Macon Judicial Circuit District Attorney David Cooke said Hinesville City Manager Kenneth Howard stood a chance of being convicted if his case went to trial.
“After reviewing the evidence in this case, Mr. Howard found it to be in his best interest to enter into a pre-trial diversion agreement,” Cooke said. “Given the weight of the evidence, I think his analysis was well placed as it’s likely that we would have prevailed at trial.”
Howard, who has maintained he is innocent, faced charges of solicitation of sodomy and pandering for incidents that allegedly took place in 2017 and 2018 at Fort Valley State University. He is one of seven men indicted in April in Macon as a result of a prostitution sting in Fort Valley.
Howard, a 1986 graduate of FSVU, turned himself in Oct. 23, 2018 and later bonded out at $3,500.
On Nov. 4, the DA’s office announced it would not prosecute the charges against Howard after he completed the requirements of a pre-trial diversion agreement arranged by his attorneys.
“Due to Mr. Howard’s lack of criminal history, he was allowed to enter into a pre-trial diversion agreement that required him to complete 25 hours of community service, attend a class about the dangers of prostitution and pay a $250 fine,” said Amy Leigh Womack, an officer with the Macon Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s Office, in an email. “Our office dismissed the charges against him after receiving notice of Mr. Howard completing these requirements on Nov. 4.”
His attorneys said Howard was and continues to be innocent.
“Mr. Howard denied any wrongdoing from the beginning of this case and pled not guilty requesting a jury trial. After a review of the GBI’s file, it was clear that Mr. Howard was not guilty of any crime and as a result, the D.A. offered a resolution that affords Mr. Howard complete and immediate exoneration with a dismissal of all charges. Mr. Howard has maintained his innocence from the beginning and maintains his innocence today.”
The Courier requested a copy of the pre-trial diversion agreement from the Macon Judicial Circuit. The Courier received 16 pages, mostly email exchanges, between Bibb County Assistant District Attorney Neil Halvorson and Joel Osteen. Those email exchanges comprised the agreement.
In an email dated Sept. 30, Halvorson stated Howard was offered the plea offer after conferring with Cooke and, “Given the fact your client did not have a previous arrest prior to this incident.”
In that same email Halvorson said the office had received additional information from the GBI in the form of a DVD. Information about what was on the DVD was redacted but Halvorson told Osteen a copy of the DVD would be made available for them to review.
On Oct. 1, Osteen replied, “I would like to get a copy of the DVD and have time to review the additional evidence with my client as we consider your plea offer.”
Osteen also requested a copy of the pre-trial diversion agreement so he could review it with Howard saying, “So I can go over the language with my client. His job is very political and anything he signs will be heavily scrutinized as the Mayor and City Council consider whether or not to allow him to continue to be the City Manager.”
Later that afternoon Halvorson replied,” I don’t have a pre-trial agreement per se. I also wasn’t looking for him to have to sign anything in particular. If that would be helpful. I can certainly put one together. My intent was to leave the case open and then close it out once he completes the terms of the pre-trial offer.”
The email exchanges confirm that Howard paid the $250 fine and by Oct. 21 had completed an 8 hour online course on the dangers of prostitution. Howard was allowed to take the online course instead of having to wait until Nov. 12 when a course was set to be offered by the Fort Valley Department of Public Safety.
The email exchanges do not detail how or when Howard completed his 25 hours of community service.
Howard along with city employees Holly Fields and Neisha Williams and Hinesville councilwoman Vicky Nelson are still named in a sexual harassment complaint filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission by city employee Danyell Barboa.
In the EEOC complaint, filed Oct. 11 with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Barboa alleges Howard made sexual advances toward her from April 2017 to June 2017 and that she was subjected to several attempts of retaliation by Williams, Fields and Nelson.