Key Atlanta bribery figure secretly recorded conversations

Federal prosecutors delivered a bombshell in the City Hall bribery investigation Wednesday, when they filed a court document revealing the city's former top purchasing officer has made secret recordings for the government's case.

Adam Smith had been the city’s chief procurement officer since 2003, until Mayor Kasim Reed fired him Feb. 21 — just before FBI agents confiscated his city-issued computer and cell phone from his City Hall office.

Federal agents had been investigating city bribery for at least six months by that time.

In September, Smith pleaded guilty to accepting at least $30,000 in bribes from unnamed individuals. Days later, FBI agents raided the Sandy Springs' office of airport contractor The Prad Group, an engineering firm that has been part of 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 AJC has previously reported that Prad executive Jeff Jafari paid Smith cash for contracting information, and that Smith recorded some of those conversations.

Jafari has not been charged.

The document from prosecutors does not say who Smith recorded, but does imply that there are multiple recordings. It asks for a 40 percent reduction in Smith’s sentence of between 46 and 57 months in prison when he faces U.S. District Court Judge Steve Jones on Jan. 16.

The motion, filed by U.S. Attorney B.J. Pak and assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Davis, said the leniency is deserved "based on (Smith's) substantial assistance" to prosecutors.

“Smith provided the United States with several audio files containing recorded conversations between Smith and others,” the document says. “Smith recorded conversations at the request and direction of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Smith debriefed with and provided information to the FBI on multiple occasions.”

Mark Campbell, a former federal prosecutor in Atlanta who is now a criminal defense attorney, said recorded conversations are extremely valuable to prosecutors, because defense attorneys will try to impeach the credibility of their witnesses.

“When the government makes use of a cooperating individual, particularly somebody who is going to be charged and convicted for being involved in the case, their credibility is going to be at issue,” Campbell said. “I can’t think of any better way to corroborate what someone says than to have recorded it.”

Jessica Gabel Cino, a former federal prosecutor and associate law professor at Georgia State University, said it’s no surprise that federal agents have recorded conversations. They are essential in public corruption investigations, she said.

“Getting those recorded conversations is how the prosecution proves its case, especially in these types of investigations,” Cino said. “It’s changed a little bit with advent of … text messages and email. But the crafty individuals don’t put anything in writing.”

The investigation into City Hall bribery burst into the public view a year ago, when construction contractor Elvin "E.R." Mitchell was charged with conspiracy to commit bribery and money laundering in January 2017. He admitted to paying more than $1 million over several years. Mitchell reported to prison last month, but has agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.

Contractor Charles P. Richards has also pleaded guilty, agreed to cooperate and has been sentenced to prison for paying more than $193,000 in bribes. Together the contractors have said they paid the bribes to an unnamed third individual, who then passed on a portion of the money to City Hall officials with influence over contracting.

The Smith bribery charge seemed to widen the investigation, as the subpoena related to him asked for information about all city contracts of $1 million or more over the past few years. An AJC analysis of those contracts found most related to the airport or the city’s watershed department. So far, Smith is the only city official to have been charged in the investigation.

In a statement, the city said it was cooperating fully with the investigation and expected harsh treatment for anyone found to have broken the law. Reached by phone, former mayor Reed declined comment. “I don’t have anything to say to you,” he said. “Thanks.”

Campbell, the former prosecutor, said the secret recordings Smith provided to prosecutors are similar to a wire tap.

“Some of the most difficult evidence to defend against is audio or video recording of one’s own client,” Campbell said. “The defense is limited to arguing that it should be suppressed, or that it’s being taken out of context, or that it was fraudulently produced.

“It’s very difficult to argue that it did not happen. And that puts you in a very difficult spot.”

Defense attorney Brian Steel, who could not be reached for comment, on Thursday filed 71 letters written by people testifying to Smith’s character. The letters will be considered by Judge Jones before sentencing.

Smith graduated from Morehouse College and received a law degree from Georgetown University. The bribery charge against him shocked friends and associates.

“Your Honor, Adam is deeply remorseful for his wrongdoing and regrets it with all his heart and mind,” says a letter from Everett Bellamy, a law professor at Georgetown University, where Smith received his law degree. “He knows that he has let his family down, as well as his friends, church members and the city of Atlanta. He also realizes that as a member of the Bar, he was held to the highest standards of conduct.

“When you look at his background … it is understandable that this is a tremendous fall from grace. However, Adam is human. He made a huge mistake and accepts responsibility for his actions.”

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