Atlanta City Hall corruption trial gets underway

atlanta city hall
Federal prosecutors plan to ask a judge to dismiss convictions for wire fraud and to resentence Rev. Mitzi Bickers, a former high-ranking Atlanta city official, who is currently serving a 14-year prison sentence stemming from an investigation into corruption at City Hall, according to a court filing Friday, June 23, 2023. (Jasmine Robinson/WABE)

A political consultant who worked in Atlanta City Hall manipulated contractors into paying her in exchange for city work, a prosecutor said as the first trial in a long-running federal corruption investigation got underway.

Mitzi Bickers, who helped former Mayor Kasim Reed win an election and then worked as his director of human services, faces charges including bribery. Eight women and seven men — 12 jurors and three alternates — were sworn in Wednesday, and opening statements were delivered Thursday.

Bickers’ used her influence to funnel business to Elvin “E.R.” Mitchell Jr. and Charles P. Richards Jr. despite her city job having nothing to do with contracting, prosecutors have said. She’s also accused of trying to use money and influence to get contract work from city officials in Jackson, Mississippi.

“This is a case about money, and this is a case about manipulation,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeff Davis said, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Bickers has maintained her innocence.

Mitchell and Richards pleaded guilty in 2017 to conspiring to pay bribes and were sentenced to prison. Now, they’re important government witnesses, the newspaper reported. They paid Bickers more than $2 million in bribes to get contracts for emergency snow removal, sidewalk maintenance and bridge reconstruction from 2010 to 2015, prosecutors have said.

Marissa Goldberg, an attorney for Bickers, said in her opening statement that the government has been misled by Mitchell, whom she called “a hustler and a swindler,” the newspaper reported.

“The federal government was willfully blind in this prosecution,” Goldberg said. “There are massive holes in this case.”

The “pay-to-play” scheme began in 2010 when Bickers shared a confidential city document about bridge projects with Mitchell and Richards, allowing them four extra months to prepare a bid.

“Of course, Pastor Bickers got her cut,” Davis said.

And after steering lucrative snow removal work to Mitchell in 2011, Davis said, Bickers got about $300,000 in a series of payments from the contractor and soon signed an agreement to buy the lake house she’d been renting.

In 2014, when two snowstorms hit the city, Mitchell’s company Cascade Building Systems got the most contract work, despite not being on a list of preapproved contractors for snow removal.

Richards, a longtime friend of Mitchell, was one of the trial’s first witnesses on Thursday. Mitchell told Richards that he could get part of a sidewalk contract even if his bid wasn’t among the lowest because of Mitchell’s City Hall connections, the newspaper reported.

“He said if I gave him marketing money I would get the contract,” Richards said, calling the payments “bribery.”

Bickers attorney Drew Findling said Richards gave the money to Mitchell, not to Bickers.

“You never got a phone call from Pastor Mitzi Bickers,” Findling said. He later asked if it was possible Bickers wasn’t involved, the newspaper reported.

“You realize that possibility exists,” Findling said.

“It seems rather unlikely, but it is a possibility,” Richards said.

Bickers didn’t work for Richards’ company but he made a payment of $15,000 in “marketing money” to her companies. Davis asked if Bickers ever got in touch to ask why or tried to return the funds, and Richards said she didn’t.

Prosecutors also called Deidre Verdier, whom Bickers dated for most of 2011. She said Bickers paid for most things in cash and that Mitchell once brought a “doctor’s bag” stuffed with stacks of $100 bills to Bickers’ home.

She said Bickers had her put some of the cash in a dresser in a bedroom and when she asked why Bickers didn’t want to put it in the bank, Bickers “said she didn’t want to flag the IRS,” the newspaper reported.

Under questioning by Goldberg, Verdier acknowledged she had lied in the past. But she said it had been a matter of survival when she was growing up. She said Bickers changed her life and helped restore her relationship with her mother.