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

‘Not illegal to give a gift,’ contractor’s lawyer says of alleged bribes

An attorney for a contractor accused of passing envelopes of cash in restaurant bathrooms to Atlanta’s former purchasing director said Wednesday that if his client made payments to imprisoned city official Adam Smith, it was out of generosity to a cash-strapped friend and not with corrupt intent.

Steve Sadow, an attorney for contractor Jeff Jafari, said in a federal court hearing that evidence provided by prosecutors so far suggests that Smith took money from more people than prosecutors have revealed, but that those individuals haven’t been prosecuted.

In a preview of a potential legal defense, Sadow described Jafari as a generous man who provided a financial lifeline to Smith. Sadow said Smith, despite his position over purchasing, had no ability to grant contracts on his own or influence awards as prosecutors allege.

According to city code, Smith had authority to authorize and execute contracts for less than $100,000 under certain circumstances, and his signature was required on larger contracts requiring council and mayoral approval to ensure all city procurement rules were followed. Smith also could approve emergency purchases of any size, change orders on contracts up to 10 percent of total value and purchase orders of greater than $20,000.

Jafari, a former executive with Sandy Springs-based engineering and architecture firm PRAD Group, was indicted in March on 51 counts, including bribery, money laundering, tax evasion and tampering with a witness.

Prosecutors allege Jafari paid Smith more than $40,000 in bribes — generally $1,000 in cash at a time inside restaurant bathrooms — from 2014 to 2017. Smith admitted to helping a contractor, which prosecutors say is Jafari, win city business, including providing him with sensitive information about rival bids and upcoming contracts.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of city records and the indictment found at least two occasions in which alleged Jafari bribes were paid a day after City Council votes that potentially benefited PRAD Group.

Steve Sadow, defense attorney for longtime Atlanta contractor Jeff Jafari, speaks to reporters Wednesday, July 24, 2019, outside the federal courthouse in downtown Atlanta. J. SCOTT TRUBEY / STRUBEY@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Sadow asked U.S. Magistrate Judge Linda Walker to order the U.S. Attorney’s Office to provide more information about Smith’s finances and communications. If others gave Smith money and those persons weren’t charged, Sadow told Walker, that’s relevant to Jafari’s defense.

“It is not illegal to give a gift, goodwill, friendship,” unless it’s for a dishonest purpose to influence that official, Sadow said.

Smith is one of two members of former Mayor Kasim Reed’s cabinet to plead guilty and be sent to prison for accepting bribes as part of a federal corruption investigation of City Hall that dates to at least mid-2015.

The federal probe, which has scrutinized contracting at the airport, watershed department and even mundane city business such as sidewalk and snow removal contracts, so far has notched five guilty pleas overall and indictments of two others, including Jafari.

Jafari has pleaded not guilty.

Former Atlanta chief purchasing officer Adam Smith leaves the federal courthouse in September 2017. Smith is now serving a prison sentence after pleading guilty to accepting bribes from a contractor. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Sadow said that records within a mountain of evidence prosecutors provided to Jafari’s attorneys so far suggests Smith racked up credit card debts of $100,000 to $120,000 and paid it off from sources other than his $200,000-plus city salary.

The $40,000 or so Jafari allegedly provided Smith falls far short of what the purchasing chief needed to pay off his American Express bill, which Sadow said records show was repaid.

Sadow declined to say if his client made payments to Smith, but he praised Jafari’s generosity.

“I think to a person, anyone who knows Jeff Jafari, would say he’s one of the most generous people they’ve ever met,” Sadow said after the court hearing.

The indictment also alleges Jafari paid a bribe to a DeKalb County official in 2014. Sadow alleged in a court filing and in remarks to reporters Wednesday that the DeKalb official is former deputy chief operating officer Morris Williams. Sadow said Williams also lacked the power to influence contracts.

“I think it’s been clear from the reporting for years that Morris Williams would take money from anyone that he could get money from,” Sadow said. “He had no power in DeKalb County to approve anything.”

Prosecutors declined to comment following the hearing. Judge Walker asked Sadow to refine his motion and prosecutors are expected to respond in the coming weeks. A trial date hasn’t been set.

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