Atlanta 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, a contractor, and focuses on its next target which appears to be Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell.
Although authorities will not confirm the probe, 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."
"My friends, this is not an investigation, but an inquisition," Campbell said last week. "It is hopelessly out of control, with real abuses of the criminal justice system."
The investigation is a political crisis for Campbell, a popular mayor at the end of his second term in office. The black Democrat has been in the national spotlight as a strong supporter of affirmative action and as the face representing the city during the 1996 Olympics.
Campbell went on the offensive last week after someone leaked to the media that investigators were asking questions about a gambling trip he made to Mississippi casinos. He held a news conference and made a tour of Atlanta's black radio stations in which he said the FBI has used such investigations to target powerful blacks for decades.
But 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.
Rather than fight the government's antitrust lawyers, Timmerman agreed to cooperate. During the next year, he helped gather evidence against others involved in rigging bids.
Timmerman 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.
From there, the investigation moved inward from the suburb to the city, from businessmen to elected officials.
On to city hall
The first official sign that investigators also were looking at city hall came in June when Fred B. Prewitt, chairman of the Atlanta Civil Service Review Board and a close friend of the mayor, was indicted for 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.
"The federal authorities hauled (Prewitt) downtown, told him if he did not provide incriminating evidence against me he would be indicted for tax evasion, publicly embarrassed and he would be broken," Campbell said.
Prewitt's wife died of a stroke earlier this month. Campbell blamed the investigation for her death.
In addition to the probe into city contracts, federal investigators are looking at Campbell's fund-raising and reports that he took bribes from a strip club owner allegations that Campbell calls ridiculous.
Campbell and his allies have called for a speedy conclusion to the investigation, saying it unfairly casts suspicion on Atlanta politicians. But based on the large number of documents subpoenaed last month, the investigation won't end anytime soon.
Former U.S. Atty. Joe D. Whitley said federal investigations often start with peripheral figures and move inward to elected officials.
Despite Campbell's allegations, Whitley says there are safeguards that prevent federal investigators from pursuing a political vendetta.
"There has to be some basis for the investigation," Whitley said. "There has to be something that triggers it."