Bribery, corruption scandal looms over Atlanta mayor’s race

Atlanta mayoral candidate Peter Aman (center), a former city chief operating officer, talks during an Inman Park mayoral candidate forum in The Trolley Barn, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017, in Atlanta. Seven of the nine major mayoral candidates have ties to City Hall. BRANDEN CAMP / SPECIAL

Atlanta mayoral candidate Peter Aman (center), a former city chief operating officer, talks during an Inman Park mayoral candidate forum in The Trolley Barn, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017, in Atlanta. Seven of the nine major mayoral candidates have ties to City Hall. BRANDEN CAMP / SPECIAL

A guilty plea in federal court and an FBI raid on a long-time city vendor are reshaping the Atlanta mayor’s race by throwing a white-hot spotlight back on the City Hall bribery investigation, just one month before voters choose Kasim Reed’s successor.

Most of the major candidates have weaponized the scandal in their stump speeches and at forums since the federal probe netted a guilty plea from the city’s top purchasing official two weeks ago.

Tough talk on ethics and procurement reform have joined pledges about affordable housing and transportation, issues that were driving the campaign’s early days. The mayor himself has been forced to defend his record and issue regular statements about how he’s cooperating with the probe.

Contractor Elvin “E.R.” Mitchell Jr. pleaded guilty in January to conspiracy to commit bribery as part of a federal investigation into city of Atlanta contracting. (HENRY TAYLOR / AJC)

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The investigation into pay-to-play contracting was made public in January when construction contractor Elvin "E.R." Mitchell Jr. pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery and admitted to paying at least $1 million in exchange for city contracts. A second contractor, Charles P. Richards Jr., pleaded guilty in the scheme in February.

But the investigation’s impact on the mayoral race had been stunted, largely because no city government officials had been implicated during the past seven months while the probe quietly plodded along out of public view.

All that changed Sept. 26 when Adam Smith, the city's chief procurement officer, admitted to taking at least $30,000 from an unnamed vendor in exchange for insider information about city contracts.

Smith's guilty plea happened just days after federal agents served a search warrant at the Sandy Springs offices occupied by the PRAD Group. PRAD is an engineering firm that, along with its joint venture partners, had at least $100 million in city contracts since 2009. Most of that work was at the airport and for the city's watershed department.

The scandal is a stain on the Reed administration, and a unique political issue that could alter the tightly packed race to become the city's 60th mayor, said Michael Leo Owens, a political science professor at Emory University.

For example, the raid caused Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms to promise the return of $25,700 in campaign contributions from PRAD and people associated with the company.

Seven of the nine major candidates have a connection to city government.

“For a long time, the race has been really dull,” Owens said. “We can point to very few big differences among the candidates. Now here is this thing that’s incredible. Corruption always draws our attention. But a few weeks out from a mayoral election — only a fool would not be mining this issue for votes.”

City Council President Ceasar Mitchell (left) talks during an Inman Park mayoral candidate forum in The Trolley Barn, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017, in Atlanta. BRANDEN CAMP / SPECIAL

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Voter: ‘We need a new start’

Seated on a folding chair inside the Trolley Barn on Edgewood Avenue, Tony Terranella came to an Inman Park neighborhood mayoral forum Wednesday to size up the candidates.

Terranella said affordable housing was his biggest issue in the race, but ethics would be at the top of his mind when he casts his ballot.

Terranella said he is not sure any candidate with deep connections to City Hall can win his vote.

“I’m tired of politicians being out for themselves,” he said. “We need a new start.”

Most of the candidates addressed the bribery investigation even though the questions revolved around neighborhood concerns: fixing broken sidewalks; high-priced development pushing out residents; and nuisances caused by television and film projects shot in Inman Park.

Councilwoman Mary Norwood, who narrowly lost to Reed in 2009, said in her closing statement that restoring faith in local government would be her highest priority.

“Every 10 to 15 years we put people in jail,” Norwood said. “Atlanta is better than this. Our people are better than our politics, and we need to fix the systems and the processes so that we don’t have this happen ever again.”

John Eaves took on the issue in his opening remarks. The former chairman of the Fulton County Commission talked about his “corruption-free” tenure leading the county.

“Friends, this election is about leadership and integrity,” Eaves said. “I’m running for mayor, my friends, because City Hall needs a massive overhaul. It’s corrupt and it’s systemic.”

Stephanie Sherman, of Inman Park, said her confidence in politicians has been shaken at the federal level. She said the bribery at City Hall has angered her in much the same way.

“I don’t understand how people, when they get into positions of power, that they somehow think the rules don’t apply to them,” she said.

Former Atlanta City Council President Cathy Woolard (center) talks during an Inman Park mayoral candidate forum in The Trolley Barn, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017, in Atlanta. BRANDEN CAMP / SPECIAL

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First ads on scandal air

The first commercials highlighting the bribery scandal are now hitting the airwaves.

Peter Aman, the city's former chief operating officer during the early years of Reed's first term, released a television commercial Thursday that opens with the word "CORRUPTION" scripted in blood-red lettering.

“I have a demonstrated track record of holding people to the highest ethical standards,” Aman says in the ad.

Former state senator Vincent Fort has bought radio airtime to talk about his proposal to hire a City Hall inspector general.

“Atlanta, I’m sick of the corruption that’s holding us back,” Fort says in the ad. “As mayor, I’ll set up an independent inspector general to root out the corruption and get City Hall working for you.”

And the issue has led to bare-knuckled politics in Reed’s last year.

Cathy Woolard, former council president, has called for an audit if she’s elected and said she would form an independent task force to probe every aspect of procurement. She also railed against the current council and some of her opponents for steps she said gutted the city’s ethics board, and for not putting in place safeguards that could help prevent abuses of the taxpayers.

“We just don’t have any sense at all that this is being running ethically and effectively,” Woolard said.

Council President Ceasar Mitchell picked a fight with Reed in August by proposing a moratorium on the approval of lucrative contracts that don't have to be acted upon until next year, thereby giving the new administration and council their say over the deals.

Mitchell, no relation to the contractor who has pleaded guilty, called for the pause in part because of the unfolding bribery investigation: “Given the scrutiny we are under right now as a city, I think (approving the contracts) is not prudent.”

That set off Reed, who slammed Mitchell for having to pay more than $8,000 in fines over inaccurate campaign finance reports.

But the scandal has unsettled even candidates who are friendly with Reed.

Councilman Kwanza Hall initially accused Mitchell of playing politics with the issue. But soon after Smith’s guilty plea and the raid of PRAD Group, Hall shifted his position and said the city should enact a partial contracting pause for some “aviation-focused” contracts.

Owens, the political science professor, said the issue is tricky for many of the candidates with ties to City Hall.

“Those who have fully distanced themselves from the Reed administration don’t have a problem,” Owens said. “For those who are not so distant, they have to find a way to soften it.”

Atlanta’s former chief purchasing officer, Adam Smith (left), leaves the federal courthouse in September after pleading guilty to conspiracy for accepting bribes. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: Hyosub Shin

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Credit: Hyosub Shin

Reform proposals from every candidate

Reed has pushed back hard against the candidates' proposals to delay certain contracts, saying the city should not "ground to a halt" because of the investigation.

Reed has also pledged that his administration is cooperating fully with the feds. At a press conference prior to Smith’s guilty plea, Reed again denied any wrongdoing. When asked if anyone in his administration would be indicted, Reed said: “I’m not going to play psychic. What I am certain about is that it’s not going to lead to me.”

Aman said Thursday that the airport retail contract program should be delayed, and used the issue to attack Bottoms.

“If I were mayor, I would stop that particular contracting process,” Aman said. “There are too many questions about that. There are too many questions about the donations that contractors have given to Keisha Lance Bottoms.”

Bottoms countered that Aman has his own explaining to do, because as chief operating officer his name is on contracts for the PRAD Group.

“The latest poll shows we are poised to make the runoff, and when you lead a race, desperate and failing candidates like Peter Aman will throw mud at you,” Bottoms said. “We have given every penny back of the contributions and Peter knows it.”

The Bottoms camp also called on Aman to return donations from former Equifax CEO Rick Smith, in the wake of the credit bureau’s data breach, calling it “dirty money.”

Aman has said under city code he had no direct role in approving vendors in his supervision of the procurement department.

At a recent forum at Emory University, Bottoms said that all city employees dealing with sensitive procurement issues should be required to post online their tax returns along with other financial disclosures already required by the city. She also has proposed putting all bidding online along with the contract awards.

“There needs to be a complete audit of our procurement department,” she said.

Contractor Charles P. Richards Jr. pleaded guilty in February to conspiracy to commit bribery in order to obtain city of Atlanta contracts. BRANDEN CAMP / SPECIAL

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Scandal could shape runoff

Former Mayor Shirley Franklin ran her first mayoral campaign while a high-profile federal investigation of the Bill Campbell administration played out. She said the corruption issue bubbling over in the campaign is completely understandable and appropriate.

Franklin adopted a motto during her first campaign that addressed City Hall corruption: “If You Make Me Mayor I’ll Make You Proud.”

“If I were running and a federal bribery investigation was happening, I would make that part of every answer and public statement I give,” Franklin said. “It doesn’t matter what else you plan to do if you’re not pledging to be honest and transparent.”

University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock said the bribery investigation could alter the pecking order in this year's race.

“The polling I’ve seen suggests that after Mary Norwood, everyone else is fighting to get in a runoff with her,” Bullock said. “We’re not talking about a massive shift. But it could mean 2 or 3 percentage points, and that could make all the difference. In that sense, it could be decisive as to who makes the cut.”

Smith, the procurement chief who pleaded guilty last month to accepting bribes, was actually hired in 2003 by Franklin to help clean up city purchasing.

Franklin said she thought Smith’s background, with a law degree from Georgetown University, made him perfect for the job.

“I believed Adam Smith would be particularly attentive to issues of corruption and ethics because he was an attorney and wouldn’t want to risk his legal license,” Franklin said. “I couldn’t believe it when he pleaded guilty.

“That kind of behavior from someone with his background makes you wonder if he was the victim of a culture of corruption.”

Whatever the case, the current scandal isn’t going away anytime soon. On Tuesday, contractors Mitchell and Richards are scheduled to be sentenced in federal court. It’s a hearing that could provide more information about the case — and more ammunition for the candidates.

Staff writer Leon Stafford contributed to this report.