Ex-Atlanta official’s guilty plea raises new questions in bribery probe

1:42 p.m Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017 Local

Atlanta’s ex-purchasing chief entered the federal courtroom Tuesday in a crisp navy suit, briefcase in hand. He looked the part of a trial lawyer, not a defendant about to plead guilty to taking more than $30,000 in bribes.

Adam Smith, in fact, is an attorney. He earned a juris doctor from Georgetown University, part of a C.V. that includes a master’s in public health from Yale and a degree from Morehouse College. Last week, Smith added other superlatives: corrupt cabinet member, cooperating federal witness and possible future inmate.

But Smith’s guilty plea raised more questions than it answered, legal observers say, for a criminal probe that appears to have no end in sight.

Smith, 53, became the first city official to plead guilty in the Atlanta City Hall bribery scandal. Two contractors so far have admitted paying bribes from 2010 to August 2015 to an unnamed person with the understanding some of the money would flow to one or more person with influence over city contracts.

J. Tom Morgan, a criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor, said it’s unclear if the feds are targeting more city employees, elected leaders, additional contractors or all the above.

“You don’t cut a guilty plea with the man in charge (of a city department) to go after the underlings,” Morgan said. “The deal cut with Smith is to build a bigger case against something or somebody.”

Smith was fired in February on the same day federal agents marched into his office with a subpoena and seized his city-issued computer and smartphone. Agents also sought emails and conflict-of-interest disclosures and documents that showed Smith, as purchasing chief, certified to City Council that companies had properly disclosed their relationships with city officials and that contract awards were appropriate under city purchasing rules.

Hyosub Shin/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
September 26, 2017 Atlanta - Former chief purchasing officer Adam Smith, left, leaves the federal courthouse after pleading guilty in the Atlanta City Hall bribery investigation on Tuesday, September 26, 2017. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

It appears that subpoena delivered key evidence.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeff Davis said during the plea hearing Smith met regularly with a single city vendor to help the vendor win contracts and pass on inside information.

Smith accepted bribes from the vendor, often $1,000 in cash at a time inside restaurant bathrooms. Smith didn’t disclose his personal business relationships with the vendor in city ethics filings, nor did the vendor disclose the relationship with Smith as part of the procurement process.

Smith faces up to five years in prison, and agreed to cooperate with the government. It’s a similar deal the two contractors — Elvin “E.R.” Mitchell Jr. and Charles P. Richards Jr. — reached earlier this year.

Georgia State University law professor Jessica Gabel Cino said the charging documents don’t name the vendor who paid the bribes to Smith or the types of contracts that vendor won.

Cino said the few clues released so far suggest it’s not Mitchell or Richards.

Smith met with an unnamed construction executive from at least 2015 to January 2017 to take bribes. Mitchell and Richards pleaded guilty to acts from 2010 to August 2015, Cino said.

That suggests the feds have flipped another contractor who “might be rolling on other people,” Cino said.

It also raises other questions, legal experts said.

Was the vendor an informant for the government when the relationship started, or was this person pinched by the feds and later turned to gather evidence? Who else might that vendor have given up?

What work did the vendor win? Who are or were the vendor’s partners? And do those contractors have cause to fear the feds?

So far, Cino said, federal prosecutors haven’t tipped their hands.

Given what appears to be the existence of two new federal witnesses — Smith and this unnamed vendor – the feds could have ample new evidence against others, she said.

Smith in particular could know where a lot of bodies are buried, Cino said.

“If you’ve done some bad dealings or you’ve did some shady things that led to you getting a contract you should be fearful,” Cino said. “This guy is singing like a canary.”

Curtis Compton/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
U.S. Attorney John Horn (right) and FBI Special Agent Clifford Goodman (left) brief the news media after Adam Smith pleaded guilty to accepting more than $30,000 in bribes at the Richard B. Russell Federal Building on Tuesday. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

U.S. Attorney John Horn said the vendor — described only as an executive for an Atlanta construction company — won millions of dollars in city work between the vendor’s company and related joint ventures.

He said the vendor will be named “at the appropriate time.”

“We have some questions that we are hoping to get answers for about the contracting process, and we are committed to continuing our investigation until we have those answers,” Horn said.

Mayor Kasim Reed’s office has vowed full cooperation in the probe and the mayor has said he has not been involved in any wrongdoing.

Asked if anyone else in the Reed administration was involved, Horn declined to answer the question directly.

“We are looking further into the contracting process,” Horn said.

Another former city official, the Rev. Mitzi Bickers, also has come under federal scrutiny, with prosecutors seeking records from her during her time at City Hall and in her current role as a chaplain in Clayton County for Sheriff Victor Hill.

Bickers also is a well-connected political consultant who worked many local political campaigns including a key get-out-the-vote effort for Reed in his first run for mayor in 2009. Bickers has not been charged.

Also unanswered: Why would an accomplished man like Smith, who makes more than $200,000 a year, sell himself — and his freedom — for the price of an entry-level pontoon boat?

And was this the only vendor who paid Smith bribes?

Hyosub Shin/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Brian Steel, left, defense attorney for Adam Smith, leaves the federal courthouse after a hearing on Tuesday. Smith became the first former senior city official to plead guilty in the Atlanta City Hall bribery scandal. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Smith’s attorney, Brian Steel, called his client’s misconduct an “aberration” in Smith’s life, and said Smith “takes full responsibility.”

In the hearing before U.S. District Court Judge Steve Jones, Smith answered mostly yes or no questions in a firm voice.

When Jones asked Smith to summarize what he did, Smith stumbled.

“Conspiracy to bribery…” he paused. “For accepting funds.”

Steel called Tuesday a “horrible day” for his client. He would not comment on what information Smith had given to prosecutors, or might in the future.

“I firmly believe Mr. Smith will continue to do great things in his life and this criminal conduct will not define him,” Steel said.

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