The story of Smith’s departure from the city reveals a delicate balance between protecting the integrity of the corruption investigation while also safeguarding taxpayer dollars, according to dozens of documents and interviews obtained by the AJC over the past few months.
Also, the allegations come at a time when some state legislators are attempting to take over authority of the airport. It’s unclear if the Georgia General Assembly, which is on hiatas because of the COVID-19 pandemic, will reconvene.
On Friday, prosecutors unveiled charging documents disclosing that Hayat Choudhary, chief executive of Atlanta Airport Shuttle Services Inc., had admitted to paying bribes to win a 10-year contract to operate a restaurant at the airport's taxi hold lot building.
“It is our understanding that Mano Smith was the referenced individual,” a spokesman for Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said on Tuesday morning. “Mr. Smith was officially terminated last week, after several months of suspension — during which he was denied access to city-owned assets and entry to City Hall. In an effort to continue to assist the authorities in their investigation, we do not find it appropriate to comment further at this time.”
Reached at his home on Tuesday, Smith denied the accusation.
“That’s innacurate,” he said. He declined to answer additional questions.
Under Choudhary's plea, he has agreed to provide the government with substantial cooperation in its multi-year investigation of corruption at City Hall.
In a press release following Friday’s plea, U.S. Attorney Byung J. “BJay” Pak thanked “the City of Atlanta for its cooperation in this investigation.”
City Attorney, Nina Hickson on Friday night forwarded the release to the Atlanta City Council, along with a statement noting Pak’s gratitude and informing them that the official involved had been terminated.
The AJC obtained Smith’s termination letter on Tuesday through an open records request. The letter says that Smith was fired for violating a section of the city’s ethics code that prohibits employees from accepting gratuities.
The federal charging documents for Choudhary do not indicate if Smith has been charged with a crime.
Choudhary’s 10-year contract was projected to earn $200,000 in revenue a year over a 10-year term with a three-year renewal option.
The federal charging documents say that the “ ‘COA Official’ (whom Choudary bribed) was the City of Atlanta Department of Procurement official responsible for overseeing the bidding process and influenced the awarding of the kitchen/restaurant contract.”
Mano Smith is listed as the buyer/contracting officer on the bid proposal for the contract awarded to Choudary’s team.
Months before Choudary plead guilty, a lawyer representing the city urged federal prosecutors in a letter to inform the city of any suspected ethical lapses or unlawful behavior at City Hall following the guilty plea of Larry Scott, the city’s top contract compliance officer, to charges of wire fraud and tax evasion.
“In the past, your office has invoked the confidentiality of its investigation in declining to provide any advance notice of misbehavior of any current City of Atlanta employees,” wrote David E. Gevertz, an attorney with Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, P. C. “However, given Mr. Larry Scott’s recent resignation and subsequent guilty plea, I implore you to provide the City with any information whatsoever (the) DOJ possesses that would allow the city to safeguard public funds.”
In January, Smith's team oversaw the re-bidding of ten restaurant contracts held up for years because of the federal investigation and the departure of several high-ranking airport employees.
In February, multiple City Hall sources told the AJC that Smith had been placed on administrative leave following a phone call from Pak’s office about Smith’s alleged involvement in a bribery/kickback scheme. Those sources requested not to be named because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
A procurement department phone directory published in March no longer listed Smith as an employee. And a recent procurement organizational chart obtained by the AJC revealed that all of the employees who reported to Smith now reported to another manager.
A city spokesman did not immediately answer a question about whether the ten food and beverage bids would have to be reissued.
The story so far:
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has provided comprehensive coverage of the federal corruption investigation into City Hall since it became public in 2017. Several high ranking city officials have plead guilty to crimes involving bribery, wire fraud, tax evasion and other charges. Hayat Choudary is the third city contractor to enter a guilty plea. Another contractor, Jeff Jafari, is awaiting trial on 51 counts, including bribery, money laundering, tax evasion and witness tampering.