- By J. Scott Trubey The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Adam Smith, the city of Atlanta’s former top purchasing officer, knew federal authorities were closing in, but he was not yet cooperating with the government, when he started secretly recording conversations, U.S. Attorney Byung “BJay” Pak said Tuesday.
Recordings Smith made — both before and after he started working with the feds about a year ago — are now key evidence in the long-simmering bribery investigation of Atlanta City Hall, prosecutors said. That investigation has so far netted guilty pleas from Smith and two well-known city contractors, and Pak said other unnamed individuals are also under scrutiny.
On Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge Steve Jones sentenced Smith to 27 months in prison. The reduced sentence – a more than 40 percent reduction from the minimum 46 months he faced — was a reward for Smith’s cooperation and his acceptance of responsibility.
But it was also a sentence that held the ex-city official accountable for taking at least $44,000 in bribes when he swore to act as a gatekeeper of the public trust and taxpayer dollars, Jones said.
“Not only did you allow people through that gate,” Jones said, “you profited from it.”
It was a year ago Wednesday, the first person was charged in the explosive corruption probe of Atlanta City Hall.
The federal dragnet dogged City Hall ever since, weighing on the final year of now former mayor Kasim Reed, who denied any wrongdoing.
Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, a Reed protégé, has pledged to clean up contracting and the city said it is fully cooperating.
“Under this Administration, no impropriety — large or small — will be tolerated,” Bottoms said in a statement. “Today serves as a valuable lesson to all that no one person is above the law.”
The feds have worked the case quietly since at least mid-2015. But on Jan. 17, 2017, prosecutors made public charges against Elvin “E.R.” Mitchell Jr., who was accused of conspiring to pay more than $1 million in bribes to help win city work. A second contractor was later charged and both have admitted guilt and are serving prison time.
Smith’s guilty plea and his future as a federal inmate is a far fall for the longtime city official, Georgetown University-educated lawyer and Morehouse man.
In an unmistakable irony, Smith was hired in 2003 by the newly elected mayor, Shirley Franklin, to help clean up procurement after the purchasing scandals under her predecessor, Bill Campbell.
Smith was part of the effort to reform the city’s ethics and procurement codes. He even once served as the chairman of the city’s ethics board.
Smith was fired last February on the same day federal agents entered City Hall with a subpoena and seized Smith’s work computer and city-issued smartphone. In September, Smith pleaded guilty to conspiring to accept bribes from an unnamed city vendor.
Pak would not disclose whom Smith taped, how many people he recorded or what was said in what he described as “multiple recordings.” But that information will become clear in the months ahead, Pak said after Tuesday’s sentencing hearing.
“They were quite insightful and the full value will be seen as the investigation moves forward,” Pak said. “But I can tell you he provided substantial assistance.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution previously reported one individual that Smith recorded was Jeff Jafari, a former executive at Sandy Springs-based contractor PRAD Group, an engineering firm that has received tens of millions in city work since 2009.
PRAD’s offices were raided by the feds in September, days before Smith pleaded guilty.
Prosecutors said Smith accepted bribes more than 40 times, often in restaurant bathrooms, from 2015 to early 2017. The payments were often in $1,000 cash increments.
Last week, the U.S. Attorney’s Office revealed Smith’s secret recordings and asked for a reduction in his sentence.
Jones also ordered Smith to pay $44,000 in restitution, a $25,000 fine and to serve three years on supervised release once his prison sentence concludes.
Smith choked up as he addressed the court. He said he entered city government to help fix a broken purchasing system, and said the department he led became a more professional organization.
“Over time, as the administration changed, I let my guard down. I slipped,” Smith said, in an apparent reference to the incoming Reed administration. “I made some mistakes and I lost my moral compass.”
Reed did not respond to a request for comment.
Smith, who earned more than $200,000 a year in salary as the city’s top purchasing official, said he took full responsibility for his actions, but he did not say why he accepted bribes.
Smith declined to comment to reporters after the hearing. He will report to prison at a later date.
Brian Steel, one of Smith’s attorneys, said his client came to him wanting to cooperate with federal authorities. He said Smith cooperated at his first meeting with the FBI about a year ago.
Dozens of supporters crowded into the courtroom and several attested to Smith’s integrity, faith and community service.
Seventy-one letters were entered into court records, many asking Jones to impose no or limited prison time. They painted the portrait of a public servant who made an error in judgment that should not erase a lifetime of good deeds — from mentoring youths to medical missions to Africa.
One letter came from as far away as South Africa. In that note, a college friend who fell on hard times and ended up homeless, recalled how Smith made a place for him in his Atlanta home for two months. The man is now a lawyer, and attributed his rebound in life to Smith.
Lawrence Edward Carter Sr., the dean of the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel at Morehouse College, praised Smith’s leadership as president of student government in the early 1980s.
“I even told people I would not be surprised if he is elected mayor of Atlanta someday,” Carter said of Smith. The former city official hung his head and dabbed his eyes with a handkerchief.
Carter called Smith the embodiment of integrity.
“Yet, here we are,” Carter said.
Steel asked the court not to sentence Smith to prison in light of his remorse, cooperation and life of good works.
“No one can punish Adam Smith the way he has punished himself,” Steel said.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeff Davis, who now leads the office’s public corruption division, said Smith’s charitable giving and mentorship isn’t what led him before a judge. The government’s recommendation of a lighter sentence was sufficient thanks for his cooperation, while showing the public that government officials will pay for their crimes.
“He traded his position and sold out the public for envelopes of cash,” Davis said.
Pak also encouraged others with information to come forward.
“We reward folks who come in and accept responsibility and cooperate with the investigation,” Pak said. “It could be a lesson for folks who are interested in cooperating to come forward now.”
Staff writer Dan Klepal contributed to this article.