Torpy at Large: Corruption at City Hall and MARTA: The daily double!

The scheme went unnoticed for six years.

Tuesday was seemingly Public Corruption Day in the Atlanta courtroom of federal Judge Steve Jones.

In the morning, Adam Smith, the disgraced Atlanta procurement director, stood before Jones, dabbed his eyes and was sentenced to 27 months in prison  for taking more than 40 bribes — $1,000 a pop — over a two-year period.

Then, after fortifying himself with some lunch, the same judge peered down from his bench at Joseph Erves, the senior director of operations at MARTA, who had earlier pleaded guilty to stealing nearly $523,000 over six years. Erves had billed the agency more than 40 times for phantom maintenance work.

Erves was sentenced to 33 months, which was the top end of his sentencing recommendation.

According to our reporter there, David Wickert, the judge was incredulous as Erves’ attorney, Marcia Shein, argued he should get a more lenient sentence.

“$522,000 over a six-year period — that’s serious,” said Jones, a master of the obvious. In fact, the judge wondered why prosecutors didn’t light Erves up with a longer sentence.

It’s not known whether it was a coincidence that the sentencings of these two infamous corruption cases happened on the same day before the same judge. Perhaps he was making some kind of statement. A judicial exclamation point.

Court pleadings say that prosecutors and Erves’ defense attorney wanted to get a continuance for the hearing but were denied. Perhaps Erves, who is cooperating, wanted to come back and show the judge the scalps of the other participants in his scam and plead for less time. Nonetheless, the judge wasn’t having it.

Smith, who brought a room full of people to court, got a better sentence because he wore a wire and helped the feds in their ongoing, widespread corruption investigation at City Hall. Prosecutors agreed to slash 40 percent from what could have been a 4-year prison stint.

Erves didn’t have the same cachet with the U.S. attorney’s office. His case is not seemingly part of something as widespread as what is going on at City Hall and prosecutors don’t need Erves as much as they need Smith.

Besides, almost $523,000 is no small sum. In fact, it’s like 209,000 MARTA fares.

The bribery scandal at City Hall came into public view in January 2017. Here are five things to know... 1. Contractor Elvin "E.R." Mitchell Jr. is serving five years in prison for paying bribes in hopes of securing city contracts. 2. Former Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed's office released 1.3 million pages of documents related to the investigation in Feb. 2017. 3. Shandarrick Barnes, who pleaded guilty to trying to intimidate a federal witness (E.R. Mitchell), faces 3-4 years in prison. 4. Adam Smith, the ci

It’s interesting that the two defendants have some striking similarities. Both are 53-year-old gentlemen with longtime service and prestigious jobs in two of the city’s premier public institutions — 14 years at City Hall for Smith and 25 at MARTA for Erves. Erves earned nearly $180,000 a year and Smith was north of $200,000.

There is a difference, though: Smith was blue chip; Erves was blue collar.

Smith went to Morehouse College, Yale University and Georgetown law school and was a partner for a prestigious law firm before working for the city.

Joseph Erves. 
Joseph Erves. 

Erves got a job at MARTA cleaning rail cars after serving a 3-year sentence for selling cocaine in the late 1980s. He worked his way up through the bureaucracy to achieve his trusted position and, according to his LinkedIn page, oversee 3,200 of the agency’s 5,100 employees.

Both will soon become inmates because they had access to fixing contracts and went rogue at least 40 times.

The question, of course, is why risk it all?

Defense lawyer Jerry Froelich, who had an airport contractor acquitted in a 1990s bribery scandal, chuckled at the question when I asked him a couple of months back.

"They don't think of the consequences," he said. "They think, 'I can put some money in my pocket and go on vacation.' "

The feds noted that Erves, who lived in a large home in Lithonia, liked shopping at high-end department stores and bought a Porsche 911.

Shein, Erves’ attorney, has represented others involved in fraud and said, “I’m not sure they even know themselves. They start for some reason and then it becomes a monster.”

She noted that her client confessed almost immediately after MARTA police approached him after getting a tip on the fraud hotline. She said Erves offered up his $300,000 retirement fund to pay restitution. In her pleadings, she noted that the father of five’s financial condition “is quite precarious and has been for a long time. He got himself into substantial debt over credit cards and student loans.”

Joseph Erves, former MARTA senior director of operations, in U.S. District Court in Atlanta on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018.(Illustration by Richard Miller, courtesy of  WSB-TV).
Joseph Erves, former MARTA senior director of operations, in U.S. District Court in Atlanta on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018.(Illustration by Richard Miller, courtesy of  WSB-TV).

Interestingly, Erves got his undergrad business degree and a master’s degree from 2010 to 2016, precisely during the time he was fleecing the agency.

Erves arranged to have some friends set up three companies to bill fake invoices and then split the proceeds. Shein complained, in pleadings, that the others involved in the scheme have not paid any restitution.

This is a lesson for any future scam artists: Line up more trustworthy friends when entering into a fraudulent operation.

Shein does wonder how widespread corruption is in the transit agency. Erves did get away with it for six years.

And he was well-regarded at the agency.

Back in 2014, I was writing a column about a nasty feud between MARTA’s union and management when the agency wanted to privatize the small buses that transport disabled and elderly people.

MARTA filled a room with people to answer my questions, but Erves did most of the talking. He was the guy who knew his stuff. He said the agency had to save money to survive — which is striking now, looking back, because he was then four years into his scam.

Stanley Smalls, a union official, was pitted against Erves during the heated discussions between the union and management during this issue. (The service was outsourced and has nothing to do with the kickbacks.)

Smalls, who once worked under Erves, said the rank and file looked up to him.

“We were hurt it was Joe; he was one of the good guys,” said Smalls, who is a rail operator. “He was a go-to guy. He came from the bottom. He came from being a cleaner to a senior director of MARTA. His rise was inspiring. His rise was phenomenal.”

And his fall — like Smith’s — is equally phenomenal.

In Other News