Atlanta public corruption trials to begin after four years, Trump-related turnover of prosecutors
By David Pendered
The federal prosecution of alleged corruption at Atlanta City Hall appears to be advancing.
The trial of Mitzi Bickers scheduled to start March 9 is to begin a series of up to four trials that could last through the year, and perhaps longer.
Next up is Jo Ann Macrina, whose trial date was reset from March 3 to Oct. 3.
Pre-trial action is set for February. Jim Beard has a hearing on motions set for Feb. 9. Lohrasb “Jeff” Jafari has a motions hearing on some date in February that’s not yet been scheduled by the judge.
These names once were the stuff of coffeehouse conversations as federal prosecutors probed Atlanta City Hall. Authorities filed indictments against public officials and against vendors whose city contracts ranged in the millions of dollars.
The first city official to be accused of using public office for personal gain was Adam Smith, Atlanta’s former chief procurement officer.
On Sept. 25, 2017 prosecutors accused Smith of accepting payments to steer contracts to a city contractor. Smith pleaded guilty in 2018 to one count of bribery, served 27 months in federal prison, and last week was granted early release from supervised probation. A judge waived about 15 months remaining on Smith’s 3-year probation, sentencing records indicate.
Bickers worked on Kasim Reed’s successful 2009 mayoral campaign. From February 2010 to May 2013, Bickers served as Atlanta’s director of human services. In March 2018, Bickers was indicted by a federal grand jury on 11 federal charges including conspiring to commit bribery, wire fraud, money laundering, federal obstruction and tax evasion.
Macrina served as commissioner of Atlanta’s Department of Watershed Management from April 2011 through May 20, 2016. From at least 2014 through her resignation from the city, Macrina allegedly met with Jafari and others, including Smith, then the city’s procurement officer, to discuss bids and procurement practices. Macrina subsequently steered $11 million in contracts to the firm Jafari served as executive vice president, PRAD Group, in exchange for money and luxury accommodations at a hotel in Dubai, UAE, authorities contend. Macrina was charged with conspiratorial bribery, bribery, and tax evasion.
Beard served as Atlanta’s CFO from November 2011 to May 2018. From August 2013 to March 2018, authorities contend, he obtained money and property from the city for himself, his family and travel companies. Items included two machine guns. In September 2020, Beard was charged in a federal indictment with eight counts including wire fraud, theft from the government possession of machine guns, making a false statement and obstructing federal tax laws.
Jafari allegedly paid bribes amounting to thousands of dollars to Smith, the former procurement officer. In exchange, Smith provided Jafari with information about city procurement procedures and signed contracts with values in the millions of dollars. Jafari’s debts to the IRS exceeded $750,000 for unpaid income taxes. Jafari was indicted in March 2019 in a 51-count federal indictment alleging conspiratorial bribery, bribery, tampering with a witness, tax evasion, money laundering, and structuring. At the motion hearing, prosecutors are expected to argue that Jafari’s defense cannot include reports that he’s a good person.
Since Smith filed his plea, four years have passed and the investigation continues.
Atlanta disclosed in bond documents in December 2021 that the Securities and Exchange Commission and Federal Aviation Administration are conducting separate probes into financial matters at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Questions include the names of officials who signed off on financial reports that eventually made their way to potential buyers of Atlanta’s bonds.
Former President Trump may have had a role in the prosecution’s delay.
Three U.S. attorneys have served in Atlanta in the past year. The fourth prosecutor in line to lead the office in the past year is Ryan Buchanan. President Biden nominated Buchanan and the Senate could confirm the nomination at any time. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved Buchanan’s nomination on Jan. 13.
The musical chairs in the prosecutor’s office started with the resignation of Trump’s 2017 appointee as U.S. attorney in Atlanta, Byung “Bjay” Pak. Pak resigned after the disclosure of Trump’s phone call with Georgia’s secretary of state, in which the president asked Georgia’s elections chief to find enough votes to overturn the Nov. 3, 2020 election.
The prosecutor’s post was filled for a few days by Bobby Christine, who was brought up from the Southern District of Georgia, in Savannah, to oversee both districts.
Christine abruptly resigned from both positions and left the Justice Department to enter private practice. His departure had been previously announced internally, according to a statement from the Justice Department.
The current interim prosecutor, Kurt Erskine, was pulled in from his longtime position as first assistant attorney in Atlanta. Erskine has served as a lead litigator in the Atlanta corruption investigation.