A businessman gets caught on tape offering a $5,000 bribe for a competitor to bow out of the bidding for a suburban county equipment contract. To save himself, he offers to help investigators catch bigger fish.
An FBI investigation widens. Eventually, it nets guilty pleas from a Fulton County commissioner, a high-ranking staffer and a contractor, and focuses on its next target, which appears to be Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell.
Although authorities will not confirm the inquiry, Campbell has said that he is being investigated. He originally agreed to cooperate with investigators, but recently lashed out against them, calling federal authorities "the forces of evil" and comparing the FBI to "the KGB in Communist Russia."
The black Democrat has been in the national spotlight as a strong supporter of affirmative action and as the city's representative during the 1996 Olympics.
When the investigation began in 1996 it had nothing to do with Atlanta. Federal officials were looking at a suspected bribe on a routine bid to provide equipment for a water treatment facility.
Atlanta businessman Herbert H. Timmerman, who owns a company called Eco-Tech, offered a competitor $5,000 if he would not bid on the project. The competitor tape recorded the bribe offer and took it to federal investigators.
Timmerman agreed to cooperate; he pleaded guilty to bid-rigging and was sentenced in November 1999 to pay nearly $300,000 in fines and restitution. But Timmerman also gave the U.S. Attorney's Office insight into widespread public corruption, said his lawyer Don Samuel.
In June, Fulton County Commissioner Michael Hightower pleaded guilty to accepting a $25,000 bribe from George Greene, the founder of Sable Communications Co., the company that was paid $11.5-million to make sure county computers were Y2K compliant. Greene also pleaded guilty to corruption.
Two days later, Josh Kenyon, chief of staff for the County Commission's chairman, pleaded guilty to taking $14,000 from Greene for promoting Sable to commissioners and for resolving payment problems.
But the first official sign that investigators were also looking at City Hall came later in June when Fred B. Prewitt, chairman of the Atlanta Civil Service Review Board and a close friend of the mayor, was indicted on charges of income tax fraud. Prewitt owns a construction firm that has been involved in at least $950,000 worth of city contracts.
Campbell said federal investigators are unfairly targeting him and his friends in an attempt to ruin him politically.