Jury finds ex-Atlanta watershed official guilty in corruption case

Jo Ann Macrina

Jo Ann Macrina

Former Atlanta Watershed Commissioner Jo Ann Macrina was found guilty Friday of participating in a bribery scheme at Atlanta City Hall — the latest victory for prosecutors in this year’s second trial concerning the sprawling federal investigation of the city government.

A jury of eight women and four men found Macrina guilty of conspiracy to commit bribery and bribery. Macrina was hired in April 2011 to oversee the Department of Watershed Management for $185,000 a year. She managed a $600 million annual budget for the city’s sewer and water distribution systems.

Prosecutors alleged Macrina co-conspired with contractor Lohrasb “Jeff” Jafari and Atlanta procurement chief Adam Smith to steer millions of dollars in city contracts to Jafari’s joint venture firm JP2. She allegedly received job offers from Jafari in 2014 shortly after his company failed to obtain a bid for an $11 million contract with the watershed department.

When Macrina revisited the evaluation for the contract bids in 2015, she personally participated in the process.

Prosecutors said it’s unheard of for a commissioner to participate in evaluations, and she even devised a plan to perform oral interviews with the vendors. The second time around, JP2 obtained the work after their bid ranked #2 — up from #6 a year earlier.

Macrina, Smith and Jafari allegedly discussed city projects, bids, and solicitations from 2014 through May 20, 2016 at a local restaurant, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Nathan Kitchens. JP2 went on to obtain two more contracts, collectively worth more than $6 million, without competition during that period.

“Something corrupt happened,” said Justice Department trial attorney Jolee Porter. “Jo Ann Macrina changed the rules.”

Department of Watershed Management Commissioner Jo Ann Macrina speaks during the “Imagine a Day Without Water” event in October 2015. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: Hyosub Shin

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Credit: Hyosub Shin

Prosecutors said Jafari withdrew $10,000 in cash a day before Macrina traveled to the Middle East for a work-related speaking conference on April 16, 2016. When the conference ended, Macrina traveled to Dubai to meet with Ferra Sabooni, an employee at Jafari’s PRAD Group company. She testified that Jafari told her to make Macrina “very happy.” She bought Macrina jewelry, a luxury resort room, and an upgraded first-class flight back home, among other shopping items, she testified. Sabooni said Jafari eventually reimbursed her.

Creekstone Landscapes owner Joseph Vollero also testified that Jafari paid him over $1,000 dollars to perform a spring clean-up at Macrina’s home in 2016 while she wasn’t home.

Macrina became a temporary PRAD employee shortly after then-Mayor Kasim Reed fired her on May 20, 2016, despite city policy that advises former employees to wait a year after leaving City Hall before taking private sector work related to their city role. She received $30,000 for three months of work at PRAD related to the same city contracts she obtained for them. In two cases, Jafari paid her with a cashier’s check in an attempt to hide the paper trail, prosecutors alleged.

Two FBI agents testified that Macrina contacted them a day after she was fired because she wanted to disclose her concerns about City Hall corruption. She had more than 25 conversations with them but it wasn’t until Feb. 2019 that she admitted to accepting the aforementioned $10,000 from Jafari. Prosecutors played snippets of an audio the FBI secretly recorded to show how Macrina in March 2019 backpedaled and said Jafari didn’t give her $10,000.

“It was several thousand (dollars), but it wasn’t for me,” Macrina said in the recording. “He (Jafari) asked me to buy some things for his wife...I don’t want to get in trouble because I bought his wife stuff that I gave him.”

Macrina also said in the audio that Jafari offered to give her a vacation home and a BMW.

Jeff Jafari leaves federal court after a hearing in March 2019. Federal prosecutors have charged Jeff Jafari, a former executive vice president of PRAD Group, on charges of bribery, witness tampering and tax evasion in the ongoing federal corruption investigation of Atlanta City Hall. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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The defense attorneys described Macrina as a federal informant who was betrayed by the government even though she initiated contact with the FBI because she wanted to root out corruption at City Hall. Attorney Paul Kish said the government was trying to prosecute Macrina on a federal level for possible city ethics violations.

Defense attorney David Bouchard pointed out that the city ethics department never punished Macrina for her actions. He said Macrina stupidly and mistakenly accepted gifts in Dubai, but those gifts were unrelated to her City Hall job. He also said it’s not a crime for Macrina to get employed in the private sector after leaving City Hall.

“The circumstantial evidence doesn’t add up,” said Bouchard, who called the government’s argument “nonsense.”

Macrina is one of several former city officials embroiled in the federal government’s years-long corruption probe of Atlanta City Hall. In March, Pastor Mitzi Bickers, a former city insider, was found guilty for operating a cash-for-contracts scheme at City Hall. U.S. District Court Judge Steve C. Jones sentenced Bickers to 14 years in prison.

In 2017, Smith plead guilty to taking more than $30,000 in payoffs from an unnamed company doing business with the city. He received a 27-month prison sentence. Jafari, who is awaiting trial, faces charges on a staggering 51 counts of conspiratorial bribery, bribery, witness tampering and tax evasion, among other alleged crimes.