Subpoena appears to broaden City Hall bribery investigation

A subpoena delivered to Atlanta’s law department this week appears to broaden the scope of the federal investigation into pay-to-play bribery for city contracts.

The 11-point demand for information is centered on Chief Procurement Officer Adam Smith, who was fired Tuesday and escorted out of City Hall the same day federal agents seized his city-issued computer and phone.

The Feb. 17 subpoena was obtained Friday by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News through a Georgia Open Records Act request.

The document requires the city to turn over conflict-of-interest disclosures by Smith, along with all forms he provided to the city council related to contracts of $1 million or more since Jan.1 , 2014, certifying the companies had properly disclosed their relationships to city officials and that the contract awards were “appropriate” under city purchasing rules.

City ethics rules require contractors to reveal personal and financial relationships with public officials, and their families.

The subpoena also demands the city turn over forensic images of Smith’s computer and phone, which would show a history of his communications and work dating back to whenever the equipment was issued.

All information required by the subpoena must be provided in time for a March 28 federal grand jury hearing — the third such presentation of information in this case.

The subpoena suggests the investigation has expanded beyond the two contractors who have already pleaded guilty to bribery charges, because it would capture scores of million-dollar contracts approved by the city since the beginning of 2014.

Jessica Gabel Cino, an associate professor of the Law Center for Access to Justice at Georgia State University, reviewed the subpoena for the AJC and Channel 2 and said it’s obvious the investigation has expanded because federal investigators have asked for “volumes of information.”

“It’s a really broad subpoena, … they throw in the kitchen sink,” Gabel Cino said. “What stands out to me is that they’re looking at whether this person made a call on [if] there were any conflicts of interest and then, ultimately, what was the determination on that call?

“So in other words, did he find a red flag and did somebody overrule that red flag?”

Bob Page, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Atlanta, declined to comment Friday on the subpoena or the scope of the investigation. Jenna Garland, a spokeswoman for Mayor Kasim Reed, said again Friday that she could not comment on why Smith was fired because it is a personnel matter.

The subpoena also demands a bevy of other information about Smith over the past three years, including: all emails sent or received; forms requesting permission for outside employment; forms he signed agreeing to act ethically; and forms showing he received ethics training.

Still, Zahra S. Karinshak, a partner at the law firm Krevolin & Horst and a former federal prosecutor in Atlanta, said the subpoena doesn’t necessarily mean that Smith is a target of the investigation.

“This is directed at him, but it’s also directed beyond him,” Karinshak said. “He may not be the person that’s in trouble. He may be a spoke in a wheel. They basically have his life on a computer and a cellphone.”

‘Shaken me up quite a bit’

Two construction contractors have already pleaded guilty to conspiracy in the case.

Elvin “E.R.” Mitchell Jr., of Atlanta, has admitted to providing more than $1 million in bribes between 2010-15 in exchange for city contractsThe AJC has identified at least $7.3 million in emergency contracts awarded to Mitchell’s Cascade Building Systems company, mostly for response to winter storms in 2011 and 2014.

Lithonia contractor Charles P. Richards, Jr. has admitted to providing at least $185,000 in bribes during the same time. The AJC has identified about $10 million in contracts awarded to his company, many of which used Mitchell as a minority contractor.

This week’s subpoena is the third issued in the case. In August, federal prosecutors asked for emails and other documents related to political operative Rev. Mitzi Bickers, who helped Reed win election in 2009 and subsequently was hired as his human relations director from 2010-13. Bickers used to be an executive in Mitchell’s company.

A November subpoena asked for contracts and emails related to Richards and Mitchell.

The procurement chief is one of 13 department heads in the city’s executive branch. The department is one of the smaller in city government, but also one of the most impactful — managing hundreds of millions of dollars in contract awards for the city that touch virtually every aspect of operations, from routine sidewalk repair to new runways at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

In fiscal year 2016, the office handled $119.5 million in contracts for city services, $147.6 million in contracts for the city’s water and sewer system, and more than $349 million in contracts at the Hartsfield-Jackson International, according to the city budget.

By law, the department is responsible for every purchase of goods and service for the city with a value of $20,000 or more. It is also responsible for registering suppliers seeking business with the city in an online database of vendors.

The department is projected to nearly double in size this fiscal year, to 89 employees, as part of a centralization of all procurement operations within city government. It is also gearing up for a round of huge projects, including a $250 million infrastructure bond program, a sales tax program for road and bridge improvements and projects tied to the $2.5 billion MARTA expansion.

Councilman Alex Wan, who was chairman of the council’s Finance Committee for three years, said the continuing investigation has “shaken me up quite a bit.”

“If there are flaws or defects in the process, we have no way of knowing about it until something like this comes to light,” Wan said. “It makes me angry because we’ve done so much work over the last seven years and this is what we’ll be remembered for.

“All the good things will be forgotten because of this.”

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Georgia Politics

With Atlanta mayor vote, a fabled bipartisan alliance comes to an end
With Atlanta mayor vote, a fabled bipartisan alliance comes to an end

The Republican governor and Democratic mayor shared the stage — and shared plenty of credit — at the opening of Mercedes-Benz Stadium a few months ago. The sense of relief was close to palpable. “I’ll tell you, I sure am happy now. It’s certainly one of the happiest days I’ve been on this job,” said the mayor...
Mayor Reed puts airport exec on leave amid concerns over contracts
Mayor Reed puts airport exec on leave amid concerns over contracts

A high-ranking official at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport has been placed on administrative leave after the mayor’s office learned that his wife is doing business with an airport subcontractor. A spokeswoman for Mayor Kasim Reed said Friday that the action was taken against Cortez Carter, deputy general manager at the airport, whose...
The Week: Blank says kneeling should not be seen as disrespect
The Week: Blank says kneeling should not be seen as disrespect

Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank offered his own interpretation of protests NFL players have staged this season by kneeling during the national anthem. “It’s very clear that the players have no interest whatsoever in being disrespectful to the flag or the anthem,” Blank told GPB’s Ricky Bevington this past week. &ldquo...
Dunwoody man goes from battling brain cancer to DNR hunting consultant
Dunwoody man goes from battling brain cancer to DNR hunting consultant

When Chip Madren was in seventh grade, doctors told his family the type of brain cancer he had gave him about two more years to live. It was his love of hunting that caused him to fight for his life, his mother said, after being promised a trip to Montana when he got better. “He was not fighting well up until that time,” Lea Madren said...
Move for freer political speech divides Georgia’s religious community
Move for freer political speech divides Georgia’s religious community

It’s a regular ritual on Sundays before big votes: Candidates fan out to churches across the state, take prominent perches near the pulpit and receive warm applause from parishioners. And preachers inevitably shower them with kind words, though they stop short of much more lest they cross an invisible line. That’s exactly what happened...
More Stories