On Jan. 18, 2017, local news media and Atlanta City Hall were buzzing about the federal charges announced the day before against a longtime construction CEO accused of paying more than $1 million in bribes to win city business.
The emergence of a federal corruption investigation apparently was no bother to Lohrasb “Jeff” Jafari or his dining companion that day — city of Atlanta purchasing chief Adam Smith. After a conversation at a restaurant along Monroe Drive, the two men retreated to the restroom where Jafari gave Smith $1,000 in cash, a federal indictment alleges.
That alleged bribe, and more than 40 others Jafari allegedly paid Smith from 2014 to early 2017, are at the center of a sweeping federal indictment unsealed last Wednesday that accuses Jafari of pay-to-play contracting in not only Atlanta, but also DeKalb County.
On at least two occasions, the alleged bribes paid by Jafari came a day after City Council votes that potentially benefited one of Jafari’s companies, the PRAD Group, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution examination of charges outlined in the indictment and city records.
It’s possible, however, that other alleged bribes followed City Council actions or moves by city procurement officials as the indictment lists specific dates of only eight payments to Smith from November 2016 to Jan. 18, 2017.
Two other bribes Jafari allegedly paid also came near key dates for a pair of airport contracts, the AJC analysis shows, but it is unclear whether Jafari’s companies received any of that business.
Caren Morrison, a Georgia State University law professor and former federal prosecutor in New York, said prosecutors would likely take an interest in how the alleged bribe payments aligned with key contracting events.
“Wouldn’t it be unusual if it wasn’t related?” Morrison said of the timing. “I feel like that fills in the story pretty nicely. We’d need to hear from someone under oath in court to be sure, but that’s more than plausible.”
The 51-count indictment portrays Jafari as a man practiced at greasing palms in local government and concealing financial transactions to avoid taxes and law enforcement scrutiny. It also reveals how purchasing in two of Georgia’s largest local governments — each with layers of oversight — were allegedly corrupted by secret payoffs to individuals with influence.
Steve Sadow, a noted Atlanta criminal defense attorney who represents Jafari, said his client is innocent. Sadow has called the allegations untrue and has vowed to fight the charges at trial.
But once again, Atlanta contracting is under a harsh microscope. Five people, including Smith, have pleaded guilty as part of the federal probe, and Jafari and one other person, so far, are under indictment.
The federal investigation dates to at least mid-2015, but only became public in January 2017 when contractor Elvin “E.R.” Mitchell Jr. was charged. He pleaded guilty and is serving a five-year prison sentence.
Republican state lawmakers, who have railed about corruption in contracting as a pretext for trying to take over Atlanta’s airport, have used the Jafari indictment as fresh ammunition to blast the city — even though it is unclear whether any of Jafari’s companies had recent business at Hartsfield-Jackson International.
PRAD Group played a key role in development of the airport’s rental car facility a decade ago, and the company and its joint venture partners earned tens of millions for work across several city departments in the last decade. Jafari left the company after federal authorities raided his office in September 2017.
PRAD won a piece of lucrative city architectural, design and engineering task order work in 2015, during the period Jafari allegedly paid Smith bribes. City Council approved at least eight increases in funding to the contract for the joint venture partners from 2015 to 2018.
Smith approved and submitted the awards for projects PRAD and its partners won to the mayor and City Council for approval, and Smith approved task and purchase orders for those projects, according to the indictment.
He met regularly at local restaurants with Jafari and provided information about city purchasing at times when Jafari was actively seeking contracts, prosecutors allege. At the end of their meetings, they would often convene in the bathroom where Jafari would pay Smith in cash, the indictment alleges.
A PRAD executive on Monday did not immediately return a message seeking comment.
Cash in restaurant bathrooms
A few days before Christmas in 2016, Jafari met Smith at a restaurant on Lenox Road and allegedly paid Smith a $1,000 bribe, the indictment said. That Dec. 20 meeting was the same day bids were due for a new recycling and composting facility called Green Acres ATL Energy Park to be built on airport land.
PRAD was not named as one of the companies submitting bids, but two company executives attended a pre-proposal conference for information about the project three months earlier, according to sign-in sheets reviewed by the AJC.
The following January, Jafari met and allegedly paid bribes to Smith on three occasions that aligned with important moments for PRAD.
On Jan. 10, 2017, the City Council’s utilities committee considered a resolution to add $5.6 million in task order funds for architectural and engineering design services for a new Department of Watershed Management training facility on Peyton Road. PRAD was a part of one of six joint venture design teams that won a piece of that city business.
The project, which was eventually expected to cost $28 million, was ultimately never built. But the city is working to resume the procurement process.
The day after the committee vote, the indictment alleges Jafari met Smith at a restaurant on Jan. 11 and again paid a $1,000 bribe.
The following day, records show two PRAD officials attended a bid meeting for a project to expand the airport’s Concourse T. The next day, Jafari and Smith broke bread together again and money exchanged hands, according to the indictment.
On Jan. 17, the full council approved the Watershed design task order and federal prosecutors publicized Mitchell’s arrest on bribery charges. Jafari met Smith again the next day at the unnamed Monroe Drive restaurant and allegedly paid the bribe.
A few days after what allegedly became Jafari’s final payment to Smith, federal agents visited Smith’s home and he agreed to cooperate, said two people familiar with the matter who were not authorized to discuss it.
In a conversation Smith recorded about a week later on Feb. 1, Jafari allegedly instructed Smith to tell the FBI the funds he received were loans and that he needed “to stay on the same page,” according to the indictment.
“Adam, we’re in trouble if you don’t — if you cave in, I’m [expletive],” the indictment said.
Bret Williams, a former federal prosecutor in Georgia and New York, who is now a criminal defense lawyer, said the indictment is very detailed. But prosecutors face a formidable opponent in Sadow.
Williams said he expects the defense to attack the character of Smith,who is serving a 27-month prison sentence after his guilty plea. Williams said Sadow will likely argue prosecutors are confused about the nature of the payments and that the money had a far less sinister purpose.
“It was to help a friend and the government thinks this is a huge criminal scheme,” Williams said. “But that’s going to be an uphill battle.”
Staff writer Kelly Yamanouchi and Channel 2 Action News reporter Richard Belcher contributed to this report.
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