Former city procurement officer Adam Smith leaves the federal courthouse after his hearing in September. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Torpy at Large: Feds send message in Atlanta bribery case: Own up. Or else.

Adam L. Smith graduated from Morehouse, Yale and Georgetown Law, so we can stipulate that he’s no dummy. 

Crooked, yes. But not stupid. Smith was the city of Atlanta’s corrupt procurement director, specializing in the procurement of bribes from people wanting to do business with the city.

When he got a whiff of a federal investigation, Smith did what any graduate of the School of Hard Knocks might do — he started, on his own, secretly recording conversations with others in the hope of saving his own behind.

Just as he feared, the FBI came calling, but Smith had something valuable to trade. And then he kept on recording.

That cooperation worked. On Tuesday, a federal judge sentenced Smith to 27 months in federal prison for his part in taking $44,000 in bribes, one $1,000-stuffed envelope at a time.

The sentencing guidelines said he should have gotten 46 to 57 months, but prosecutors agreed to erase 40 percent of that amount. And they subtracted it from the low end of that range, so it’s clear they are happy with their prize witness.

The once-proud Smith — a man with heavy brows and sad eyes, which made him look even more morose — packed the courtroom with upstanding citizens hoping to get the judge to provide even more mercy than 27 months.

The defense turned over 71 letters to Judge Steve Jones describing a kind, Godly man who spent countless hours volunteering — as a mentor, soccer coach, classroom parent, even a person who helped turn a homeless man’s life around.

“He is remorseful, embarrassed and deeply regrets all that has occurred,” one letter writer opined.

The term “aberration” kept popping up, because this is not the man the people in the courtroom know, this is not what a Morehouse/Yale/Georgetown Law man is expected to do.

“No one can punish Adam Smith the way he has punished himself,” defense attorney Brian Steel told the judge, before asking for the judge to cut him loose with no prison time.

Fat chance.

If Smith’s crimes were aberrations, they were serial aberrations. He was bribed more than 40 times in two years.

“These are not isolated acts,” assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Davis told the judge. “He traded his position and sold out the public for envelopes of cash.”

Judge Jones agreed, saying Smith failed as the gatekeeper of public trust.

“Not only did you allow people through that gate, you profited from it,” the judge told him.

Why would someone with Smith’s pedigree risk it all? That remains a mystery.

‘I lost my moral compass’ 

“I let my guard down. I slipped,” Smith said. “I made some mistakes and I lost my moral compass.”

The range of Smith’s illegal freelancing, and the identity of his fellow bad-doers, are still unclear because the feds are always super-secret about their investigations.

This is what we know:

Elvin “E.R.” Mitchell Jr. walks to the federal court in October. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

On Jan. 17, 2017, the feds publicly announced that longtime city contractor Elvin “E.R.” Mitchell Jr. had conspired to pay more than $1 million in bribes to win city work. To whom Mitchell paid bribes is still unclear and is seemingly not Smith.

Smith received bribes from a vendor (in the bathroom of a restaurant) every other week since 2015, ending in January of 2017. (“He kept on until the FBI knocked at his door,” Davis told the judge.)

On Feb. 21, 2017, the feds seized items from Smith’s office and he was fired from his job of 14 years. The story took on a life of its own: The city’s procurement director, the person in charge of the hen house, was himself a fox! (A good guess is sometime in January until Feb. 21 is when Smith was an official FBI-sanctioned snitch. Don’t know how long he toiled on his own beforehand.)

Left: a police mugshot of former city of Atlanta employee Shandarrick Barnes. Right: the infamous brick Barnes is accused of throwing in an alleged attempt to intimidate a key figure in the Atlanta City Hall bribery scandal. (HANDOUT)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The hurled brick, the dead rats

People with direct knowledge of the investigation say the unnamed vendor is Jeff Jafari, the recently retired VP of the PRAD Group, an engineering firm that has long done business with the city. I’m told it was Smith who flipped on Jafari, although the contractor is not cooperating. Smith even took it upon himself to record Jafari making some admissions.

In September, days before Smith pleaded guilty, PRAD’s offices were raided.

The snitching in this corruption case goes back to 2015. That’s when Shandarrick Barnes, a low-level city employee, tossed a brick through E.R. Mitchell’s living room window with a message scrawled on it: “ER, keep your mouth shut!!!”

As an exclamation point, he left dead rats on Mitchell’s porch.

E.R. went ahead anyway and ensnared contractor and friend Charles P. Richards. Barnes remains in jail, has pleaded guilty and is himself cooperating, although he probably doesn’t know much. 

Attorney Bill Morrison, who represents Barnes, said that’s the problem for low-level guys like Barnes. “The higher up you are, the more information you have, the bigger breaks you get,” he said.

Morrison said it “seems strange that there is no connection between E.R and Smith.”

‘Don’t come in and BS us’

Apparently, once the feds started snooping around, they unearthed unconnected acts of chicanery.

It’s not known who it was that Smith gift-wrapped for the feds, but the money is on someone of his rank or above.

“You rarely get much credit for cooperating down,” Morrison said. “You get credit for cooperating up or sideways.”

In court motions filed last week, the feds noted that Smith had worn a wire, an acknowledgment prosecutors don’t normally make while a case is still bubbling.

“It’s unusual; they wanted to get a message out to targets,” said former federal prosecutor Buddy Parker. “They want to let individuals know, ‘You don’t know what we know because we have recordings. We don’t want you to come in and BS us.’”

After the sentencing, U.S. Attorney BJay Pak said as much: “We reward folks who come in and accept responsibility and cooperate with the investigation. It could be a lesson for folks who are interested in cooperating to come forward now.”

Looking to cut a deal? The feds, like Motel 6, will leave the lights on.

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