The federal investigation of Atlanta City Hall is intensifying and adding new investigators and prosecutors, U.S. Attorney Byung J. “BJay” Pak said Wednesday, moments after the probe recorded its fifth guilty plea from a former top aide to Mayor Kasim Reed.
Flanked by top local agents with the FBI and IRS Criminal Investigation Division, Pak suggested there are more indictments to come as prosecutors seek to wrap up their investigation. But he could offer no timeline for when the feds will complete their probe.
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Nine federal prosecutors are now part of the sprawling investigation, Pak said in a press conference on the steps of the Richard B. Russell Federal Building downtown. Pak’s counterparts at the IRS and FBI said their agencies also are staffing up to run down leads and process a massive sum of documents — including personal financial records — of possible subjects of the investigation.
“If we are able to do our jobs appropriately we will be bringing to you not a verbal report but instead grand jury indictments,” Pak said.
Pak encouraged witnesses and others who have committed crimes to come forward and cooperate.
“Each step of this investigation probably causes them to lose sleep,” he said. “They may worry the next knock on their door may be federal agents. To them: The question is not if, but when we’re coming.”
Prosecutors have charged six people, including three high-ranking officials in former Mayor Reed’s administration, with involvement in pay-to-play contracting since the investigation came to light in January 2017.
Katrina Taylor-Parks, who served eight years as Reed’s deputy chief of staff and stayed in that role through the first few months of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ administration, became the fifth to plead guilty Wednesday.
Former Reed director of human services Mitzi Bickers, the only defendant charged so far who hasn’t pleaded guilty, appeared in a separate courtroom on Wednesday and was granted three more months for her attorneys to review the government’s evidence. She is likely headed for trial in the months ahead.
“We believe in our client’s innocence,” said Drew Findling, Bickers’ attorney, following the hearing.
In a statement, Bottoms said her administration is committed to aiding prosecutors to “ensure a fair and swift closure to this unfortunate chapter in our city’s history.”
“The people of Atlanta deserve better and should have a government that works honestly on their behalf,” she said. “It is both tragic and disappointing that individuals who have had the privilege of serving Atlanta have ruined their personal and professional reputations for ill-gotten gain.”
‘Tone at the top’
The investigation has expanded since its origins in mid-2015. Pak said prosecutors are attempting to assess “unexplained wealth in cash” of subjects he did not identify. Asked if Reed is a target of the investigation, Pak declined to say.
“When you have repeated instances of corruption and culture (where) there’s a weak internal control, you have to look at who set the tone at the top,” he said.
Thomas Hollomann III, IRS special agent-in-charge of the Atlanta criminal division, said the Taylor-Parks case “lends support to an alleged culture of pay-to-play politics at the highest level within the previous administration.”
He described City Hall during the Reed years as “truly open for business.”
Reed declined to comment.
Bret Williams, a former federal prosecutor in Atlanta and New York, said Pak is devoting substantial resources to the probe, equating it to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.
“No case has (nine assistant U.S. Attorneys) except the Mueller investigation,” Williams said. “That’s a lot of talent to throw at one investigation.
“When you staff up to that level, you’re going to sweep a lot in,” he said. “Look, you can chew on a carcass all day, but the question is how much meat is there?”
‘I committed an illegal act’
Gripping the courtroom lectern and rocking slightly, Taylor-Parks’ voice cracked as she answered questions from U.S. District Court Judge Steve Jones Wednesday morning before Pak’s news conference.
“I’m being charged with using influence to benefit a vendor that would have been in conflict with my role with the city of Atlanta,” she told the judge.
“At the time, I did not believe what I did was wrong,” she said. But after being confronted by federal authorities, she said “I came to know I committed an illegal act.”
Taylor-Parks admitted to taking $4,000 in bribes to help an unidentified vendor win about $100,000 in city business.
In exchange for money, Taylor-Parks, 49, helped the vendor arrange meetings with high-ranking officials and also introduced him to a member of City Council that prosecutors did not name.
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Using emails and a database of city payments, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution identified the vendor last week as a wireless internet company that obtained a sole-source contract at Piedmont Park and was controlled by Paul Marshall, a Marietta investment adviser who pleaded guilty in 2017 to defrauding investors.
Marshall had another business called FOGFuels that won a City Council resolution authorizing the Reed administration to negotiate a sole-source contract to turn restaurant grease into biofuel. The contract was never fully consummated, Bottoms’ office has said.
In a press release from 2013, then-Councilman Lamar Willis touted the company and its contract with the city. Willis was also subject of a city ethics complaint related to his involvement with the business, but the complaint was later dismissed.
Contacted Wednesday, Willis said he wasn’t sure which councilmember prosecutors were referring to. He declined to say if Taylor-Parks introduced him to the people behind FOG.
“I don’t have any comment because I don’t know anything about this,” he said. “I’ve not talked to anybody about this in years. I can’t begin to tell you anything at the moment.”
Pak said authorities have evidence Taylor-Parks knew what she did was wrong.
FBI agents interviewed Taylor-Parks in late 2017 and in February of this year. At some point, Taylor-Parks lied to the agents, telling them she did not take the money, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeff Davis.
Taylor-Parks ultimately admitted to conspiring to take bribes and agreed to cooperate, including to testify in the trials of other potential suspects, Pak said.
Pak declined to reveal what information Taylor-Parks provided, but said “I think she’s taking the right steps by pleading guilty and cooperating with us and bringing the truth to light for the benefit of the citizens.”
After the hearing, Taylor-Parks said, “I’m a little overwhelmed right now,” and declined to answer questions.
Taylor-Parks faces up to five years in prison when she is sentenced Nov. 5.
Her attorney, Jay Strongwater, called the plea “a devastating conclusion to a 20-year career.”
“She worked hard for the city’s best interest,” he said. “To have it end this way is devastating. She’ll be assisting to the extent that she is asked.”
Staff writer Stephen Deere contributed to this report.
In their own words
U.S. Attorney Byung J. “BJay” Pak spoke to reporters Wednesday about the corruption investigation at Atlanta City Hall. With him were Chris Hacker, special-agent-in-charge of the FBI’s Atlanta field office; and Thomas Holloman III, special agent in charge of IRS Criminal Investigation. Here are excerpts:
“The French philosopher Joseph Dumas used to say that in a democracy people get the government they deserve. With all due respect, if this corruption probe proves anything, it’s that the people of Atlanta deserve much better.”
“I want to make two observations: First, the scope of the investigation has changed since it started two years ago and it’s expanded. As a result, we felt it necessary that additional investigative resources had to be dedicated to bring a conclusion to the investigation expeditiously and thoroughly. Furthermore, I am actually prepared to devote additional resources, if necessary. This is in addition to the resources of the FBI and IRS Criminal Investigative Division. If we are able to do our jobs appropriately, we will be bringing to you not a verbal report but instead grand jury indictments.”
“Let me address the public, particularly those who might be listening who violated the law. Each step of this investigation probably causes them to lose sleep. They may worry the next knock on their door may be federal agents. To them: The question is not if, but when we’re coming. So you can help yourself right now. If you’re on the fence about coming in and cooperating with the government, I’d advise you to do it immediately… You must act now while you still have a choice.”
Will the investigation lead to former Mayor Kasim Reed?
“I can’t comment on where it will end up, but the fact of the matter is … when you have repeated instances of corruption and culture, (where) there’s a weak internal control, you have to look at who set the tone at the top.”
— Pak, U.S. Attorney
“Today’s indictment reveals another key character in the previous administration’s saga of City Hall malfeasance and political corruption. The indictment of Ms. Taylor-Parks lends support to an alleged culture of pay-to-play politics at the highest level within the previous administration.”
“The last time we stood before you with the Bickers indictment, we talked about following the money, to show the who, the what, the when, the where, and the why. That effort continues as money flowed in and out and around City Hall for City Hall was truly open for business.”
— Holloman, IRS
“I don’t have numbers right now, but I will tell you we have intelligence analysts, we have forensic accountants, we have special agents and we have other professional staff supporting us in these operations.”
— Hacker, FBI
The AJC has covered the corruption probe at City Hall since the investigation became public in January 2017. Reporters have examined thousands of pages of records related to the probe to raise additional questions about how money was spent at City Hall and provide readers with details of the alleged schemes and key players. For a complete archive of coverage, go to: http://ajc.com/cityhall/