In the midst of a swirling pay-to-play federal bribery investigation, Atlanta’s chief procurement officer was fired on Tuesday, escorted out of City Hall and had items in his office seized by federal agents.
A terse, two-sentence statement from the mayor’s office said Adam Smith had been “relieved of his duties.” A spokeswoman for Mayor Kasim Reed later said Smith’s was a “normal termination,” that includes being led out of the building by city personnel.
The spokeswoman would not explicitly state the reason for Smith’s termination, or answer further questions such who fired him, why he was fired, or what the circumstances were of the termination.
“We don’t comment on personnel matters,” she said.
The seizure of items from Smith’s office appears to be an escalation of the federal investigation into bribes paid by contractors to obtain business with the city. A law enforcement source told Channel 2 Action News that a subpoena was served and that items taken from Smith’s office included a computer and phone.
A representative of the FBI, which conducted Tuesday’s operation, did not immediately return a message seeking comment.
Smith, an attorney whose 14-year tenure spanned two different administrations, has not been publicly linked to the contracting scandal. The city has refused to make Smith available for interviews since news of the bribery scheme became public in January, and phone messages to his office have been directed to an assistant.
Tuesday’s action by federal agents is the first known search of a city of Atlanta office in connection with the probe. The city previously complied with subpoenas seeking contracts from the procurement office, along with other records involving a pair of construction contractors who have since pleaded guilty in connection with the investigation and a former city employee who has not been implicated.
Zahra S. Karinshak, a partner at the law firm Krevolin & Horst and a former federal prosecutor in Atlanta, said the FBI is methodical in building cases and Tuesday’s action is a sign the feds are still following the bread crumbs.
“The feds are following the trail and wherever Hansel and Gretel have been that’s where they’ll follow it,” she said.
Karinshak said serving a subpoena is a more tailored investigative approach than a search warrant. She cautioned that a determination can’t be made that Smith is somehow a target of the federal probe.
“The FBI didn’t fire him,” she said. “The city did.”
Councilman Howard Shook said he wasn’t surprised that the investigation had now reached into Smith’s office, given its nature. He said Smith had little interaction with the council, typically sending his staff to answer questions in committee meetings.
“He always struck me as being just a pleasant, polite, cordial, reserved person,” Shook said of Smith. “I know a lot of people are very saddened to be hearing all of this. But, no, I’m not surprised because apparently what has gotten everybody interested in all of this is contract-buying. So you would expect people to take a close look at the shop that houses that activity.”
Smith managed hundreds of millions in city contracts
The procurement chief is one of 13 department heads in the city’s executive branch. Smith led a department that manages hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts for the city, touching virtually every aspect of the city’s operation from routine sidewalk repair to new runways at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
In fiscal year 2016, the office handled $119.5 million in contracts for city services, $147.6 million in contracts for the city’s water and sewer system and more than $349 million in contracts at the airport, according to the city’s 2017 budget.
By law, the department is responsible for every purchase of goods and service for the city with a value of $20,000 or more. It is also responsible for registering suppliers seeking business with the city in an online database of vendors.
In fiscal year 2017, the department was projected to have 89 employees, about double what it had in recent years, but still making it one of the smaller city departments in terms of personnel.
After his State of the City address earlier this year, Reed said the procurement department was staffing up to handle a number of key city projects spurred on by a $250 million infrastructure bond program, the five-year, four-tenths of a penny roads and bridges sale tax program and city work that might be tied to the $2.5 billion MARTA expansion.
So far, two Atlanta area contractors — Elvin “E.R.” Mitchell Jr. and Charles P. Richards Jr. — have pleaded guilty to paying bribes to an unnamed person under the belief the money would flow to one or more Atlanta officials with influence over city contracts.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office has said the two contractors bought millions of dollars worth of city business as part of the scheme from 2010-15, and they have agreed to testify in exchange for leniency.
Federal investigators have asked for information about a former city employee, Rev. Mitzi Bickers, who played a key get-out-the-vote role that helped Kasim Reed’s win the mayor’s office in a 2009 run-off election over councilwoman Mary Norwood. Bickers worked as Reed’s director of human relations from 2010-13.
Reed said Feb. 9 he had not been made aware of the targets within city government, and said he did not know if federal investigators had interviewed Smith. It is unclear if Smith was questioned by federal agents on Tuesday.
But the mayor said the city would deal with the situation and “root those individuals out” who committed wrongdoing, and “move them out of our organization and learn from these lessons.”
“That’s what I’m going to do,” he said.
Degrees from Morehouse, Yale, Georgetown
Department heads in city government come and go but Smith stood out for his relative longevity.
He became procurement chief in 2003 in the administration of former mayor Shirley Franklin and served almost the entire length of Reed’s two terms in office.
He was a former partner at powerful law firm Holland & Knight — the firm at which Reed became a partner — and was pedigreed from some of the nation’s top universities, graduating from Morehouse College and holding a masters of public health from Yale University and a law degree from Georgetown University.
A bio on the city’s website said Smith “has embarked on an ambitious plan to reorganize and revitalize the department and the city’s procurement process, including revising the procurement code and streamlining the procurement process.” He made $202,000 a year, according to city records.
State Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, a mayoral candidate, said Smith was a student at Morehouse when he taught there. Fort called Smith “smart as hell and extremely competent.”
“I’m just shocked and disappointed that the net is apparently being cast wider and deeper,” Fort said.
Procurement office primer
The procurement office handles any contract or service over $20,000. It registers vendors seeking business with the city, and manages competitive bids on contracts, from advertising city work for bid, evaluating bidders and recommending successful bidders to the City Council and mayor for approval. It also oversee the public auction of surplus inventory. The office is run by the chief procurement officer, who reports to the chief operating officer, who reports to the mayor.
The story so far
Earlier: Contractor Elvin “E.R.” Mitchell pleaded guilty last month to paying $1 million in bribes in an effort to win Atlanta contracts. A second contractor, Charles P. Richards Jr., also entered a guilty plea to paying $185,000 to an unnamed person, also to earn city contracts. Both have vowed to assist prosecutors.
The latest: Atlanta Chief Procurement Officer Adam Smith was fired shortly before federal agents seized items from his City Hall office, including a computer.
What’s next: Mitchell and Richards are scheduled to be sentenced for their roles in the scheme April 28.