First trial in Atlanta corruption investigation set to start

Corruption Investigation Atlanta
The Richard B. Russell Federal Building is seen in Atlanta on Saturday, July 21, 2012. A political consultant who was a top aide to former Mayor Kasim Reed is the first person set to go to trial in a long-running federal investigation into corruption at Atlanta City Hall. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

A political consultant who was a top aide to former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed is the first person set to go to trial in a long-running federal investigation into corruption at City Hall.

Mitzi Bickers helped Reed win election in 2009 and worked as the city’s director of human services. She’s accused, among other things, of taking bribes to use her influence to steer city work to two contractors. Others ensnared in the investigation have pleaded guilty and been sent to prison, but Bickers has maintained her innocence. Her trial is scheduled to start Wednesday.

“This case contains false allegations some of which are more than a decade old,” Bickers’ lawyers, Drew Findling and Marissa Goldberg said in a statement. “Despite the age of the case, Pastor Bickers and her defense team are just as confident in her innocence on the brink of trial as we were in the beginning.”

In early 2017, prosecutors accused contractors Elvin “E.R.” Mitchell Jr. and Charles P. Richards Jr. of conspiring to pay city officials to get contracts for emergency snow removal, sidewalk maintenance and bridge reconstruction from 2010 to 2015. Over the next several years, a half dozen others were charged, including high-ranking members of Reed’s administration.

There was rampant speculation that Reed could be implicated. When asked about that in August 2018, then-U.S. Attorney BJay Pak would not say whether he expected charges against Reed. But he said when there are repeated instances of corruption, “you have to take a look at who sets the tone at the top.”

The investigation cast a shadow over Reed’s final year in office that lingered over City Hall even after the term-limited mayor left in early 2018. But Reed was never charged and he emphatically denied any wrongdoing last year as he made an unsuccessful bid for his old job.

His lawyers released a statement saying federal prosecutors told them in August that “the inquiry regarding Mr. Reed is closed. There is no federal investigation of Kasim Reed.”

Bickers was indicted in March 2018, and prosecutors said she and her companies received more than $2 million in bribes from Mitchell and Richards, who received about $17 million in city contracts. She’s also accused of money laundering, wire fraud, witness tampering and filing false tax returns. An October 2018 indictment added another bribery charge related to alleged attempts to get city contracts in Jackson, Mississippi.

In August, with her trial date approaching, Bickers had a coworker use his cellphone to call a likely government witness, prosecutors wrote in a court filing. When that person answered, the filing says, Bickers asked for contact information for another likely government witness, saying she wanted to “get this … nipped in the bud” and suggested the person remember that a third likely witness “fell into” Bickers’ pool.

Bickers’ lawyers responded that prosecutors were “attempting to paint an innocuous phone call into something sinister by manipulating the report and cherry-picking phrases out of context.” They said Bickers was simply trying to get the contact information for her lawyers.

In a filing, prosecutors described Bickers as “a prominent public figure in Atlanta.” Her father founded the Emanuel Baptist Church, and she became pastor after he died in 1998. Even while under federal indictment, she was named chief chaplain for the Clayton County Sheriff’s Office.

She’s credited with helping Reed win election in 2009, “rallying voters and assisting them to the polls,” prosecutors wrote. He hired her as director of human services in February 2010, a job she held until May 2013.

Bickers accepted bribes from Mitchell and Richards and failed to disclose that companies she controlled received payments from the pair while she worked for the city, prosecutors said. She also did not declare the income to the IRS and falsified tax documents, prosecutors said.

The “pay-to-play” scheme continued after Bickers stopped working for the city, prosecutors said. When a January 2014 snow storm paralyzed Atlanta, she used her influence to secure a multimillion dollar contract for Mitchell’s company, even though it “owned no snow-clearing or other equipment.”

She used the money for big purchases, like a lakefront home, a 2014 GMC Denali SUV and four Yamaha WaveRunners, and spent lavishly on travel and personal expenses, prosecutors said.

In the summer of 2015, Mitchell told her the FBI and IRS had interviewed him. Bickers tried to keep him from cooperating, prosecutors said.

In September 2015, Shandarrick Barnes, a Bickers business associate, threw a brick with the messages “Shut up ER” and “Keep your mouth shut” written on it through a window in Mitchell’s home. Mitchell found dead rats on his property. Bickers was in touch with Barnes shortly before and after that happened, prosecutors said.

Barnes told prosecutors he acted alone because he feared harm to Bickers’ business could threaten his income. He pleaded guilty to obstruction and was sentenced to prison.

Mitchell and Richards each pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge and were sentenced to prison.

After the mayor of Jackson died in February 2014, Bickers helped Tony Yarber win an April 2014 special election. She and others made significant donations to his election committee and she hosted parties in Atlanta with strippers, cigars, alcohol and food for Yarber and other officials, prosecutors said. Yarber dubbed her a “kingmaker.”

Bickers then tried to get contract work in Jackson. She told a city employee in May 2015 that the mayor had promised she would receive a city contract and she “simply needed to ensure that the paperwork looked good enough to justify the award,” the indictment says.

Others who pleaded guilty as the federal investigation unfolded include the city’s former chief procurement officer, Adam Smith; Reed’s deputy chief of staff, Katrina Taylor-Parks; and Larry Scott, the former director of the city’s Office of Contract Compliance.

Longtime City of Atlanta vendor Lohrasb “Jeff” Jafari is accused of bribing Smith, as well as tax evasion and money laundering. Former commissioner of the Department of Watershed Management, Jo Ann Macrina, is also accused of taking bribes from Jafari. Both have pleaded not guilty and have trials scheduled later this year.