Bickers’ trial exposed flaws in city of Atlanta contracting

March 23, 2022 Atlanta - Mitzi Bickers hugs her attorney Marissa Goldberg as she leaves after her trial in federal court at the Richard B. Russell Federal Building on Wednesday, March 23, 2022. A federal jury has found Mitzi Bickers guilty of nine charges in the first trial in the Atlanta City Hall corruption investigation. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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March 23, 2022 Atlanta - Mitzi Bickers hugs her attorney Marissa Goldberg as she leaves after her trial in federal court at the Richard B. Russell Federal Building on Wednesday, March 23, 2022. A federal jury has found Mitzi Bickers guilty of nine charges in the first trial in the Atlanta City Hall corruption investigation. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Reforms passed in wake of federal probe should protect taxpayers, insiders say.

Satchels stuffed with stacks of $100 bills. Confidential documents leaked to contractors ahead of a public bid. City officials in key positions who allegedly had their thumbs on the scales.

The federal trial of Pastor Mitzi Bickers laid bare how the city of Atlanta’s purchasing rules were corrupted during the administration of former Mayor Kasim Reed. The Bickers case centered on acts as far back as 2009, but it took on new relevance with alleged links to two current high-ranking officials whose names surfaced in trial and seemed to catch City Hall off guard.

The revelations raised questions about how much the city has done to root out corruption, if contracting practices are still vulnerable and whether other current employees’ names could surface.

“Isn’t the allure of crime that it’s easy money?” said Caren Morrison, a Georgia State University law professor and former federal prosecutor.

A spokesman for new Mayor Andre Dickens did not respond to questions from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for this story. The mayor’s office has said little during and since the federal trial of Bickers, who was convicted Wednesday on nine counts, including conspiracy to commit bribery.

Dickens spokesman Michael Smith has said the administration was not informed in advance of people suspected of wrongdoing and the city continues to cooperate with prosecutors.

“While the DOJ has not shared with this Administration the names of any other employees suspected of wrongdoing, the City remains steadfast in fully cooperating with authorities during this investigation,” Smith said on the opening day of trial.

To date, the federal probe has ensnared multiple contractors. Adam Smith, a former purchasing chief, and Katrina Taylor Parks, a former deputy chief of staff to Reed, also have pleaded guilty in separate cases to taking bribes from vendors.

The city still faces three more potential high-profile trials, including bribery cases for a former watershed commissioner and a well-connected contractor.

At Bickers’ trial this month, longtime city executives Cotena Alexander and Rita Braswell were implicated, and both are on leave pending an internal investigation. Neither have been charged, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment about the status of the investigation.

Since taking office, Dickens launched a national search for a new procurement chief to succeed Martin Clarke, who took the role in 2020, long after the allegations of wrongdoing involving Bickers.

City Councilman Matt Westmoreland said he has confidence Dickens will find a capable executive to bring competent and ethical leadership to city procurement.

“I hope they will look at every inch of that department, including what’s been under scrutiny in that trial,” Westmoreland said.

Though Westmoreland said he is not aware of any pending procurement reform legislation, some could be in the offing.

City Hall observers told the AJC pay-to-play contracting is a danger for all governments, but the city has taken steps over the past four and a half years to strengthen the system. Officials point to reforms enacted in response to the federal investigation — including new independent watchdogs — they say have made corrupting city procurement harder.

The City Council and Reed’s successor, former Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, enacted a new online procurement process and centralized oversight for purchases under $20,000.

The council also created independent procurement review officers or I-PROs, to examine contracts greater than $1 million, with reports issued ahead of council votes. And in 2020, the city established a new Inspector General’s office.

Former Council President Felicia Moore, who drafted reform legislation, said when she was on council, the only people she could turn to for answers about inconsistencies in contracting were administration officials who wanted her vote.

“The more eyes you have on it maybe that will reduce people’s feelings that they can get away with violating the process,” said Moore, who lost to Dickens in last year’s mayor’s race.

Witnesses, feds allege contract steering

Bickers helped Reed win his first run for mayor in 2009 and worked from 2010 to 2013 as his director of human services. The jury found Bickers steered sidewalk, bridge repair and snow removal contracts to contractors Elvin “E.R.” Mitchell Jr. and Charles P. Richards Jr. Both men previously pleaded guilty and testified against Bickers.

Prosecutors alleged Bickers, who had no formal role in contracting, received some $2 million in payments from Mitchell and Richards and bribed other officials as part of the conspiracy.

In 2009, shortly before Bickers started her city job, Mitchell testified she approached him about an annual sidewalk contract. She also sought a bribe, he said.

Mitchell teamed with Richards, and though they were the highest bidders, they still got pieces of the work that eventually grew into the millions of dollars.

Mitchell testified that Bickers was agitated one day and said that Parks, the former Reed aide, was refusing to share the bribe money with “our people.” Mitchell identified “our people” as Braswell and Alexander.

The contractor testified Bickers gave him confidential records concerning problem bridges that he and Richards used to get a leg up on competitors.

After receiving more than $1 million for snow removal work in 2011, the city confronted Mitchell about his high rates. In response to that storm, the city put in place an on-call emergency services contract with five vendors to lock-in pre-approved rates. Mitchell was not one of the five.

Still, in 2014, as winter weather approached, Mitchell testified that Bickers told him he could get more work. Exhibits showed Alexander directed work to Mitchell during two winter storms. Mitchell’s company did work and purchased salt at higher rates than those pre-negotiated with other contractors.

Records showed Mitchell was paid more than $5.5 million, the bulk of the city’s snow removal work.

Bickers was acquitted of one conspiracy count that included allegations she bribed Alexander in 2014 to help Mitchell win the snow contracts. Prosecutors outlined how Bickers received about $900,000 in payments from Mitchell as his firm collected millions.

A juror who spoke to the AJC after the trial said jurors believed the payments to Bickers were bribes, but that prosecutors did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Bickers paid Alexander at that time.

Alexander did not testify in the trial, informing the court she would assert her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

Moore, the former council president, said council members are a check on the administration. She said independent procurement review officers (I-PROs) and other reforms should help the city’s legislative branch protect taxpayers.

“With the I-PROs, maybe the council would have caught it,” she said.

More past contracting abuse could be exposed in the coming months.

The trial of contractor Jeff Jafari, accused of paying bribes in restaurant bathrooms to Smith, the former city procurement chief, is set for August. The bribery trial of former Watershed Commissioner Jo Ann Macrina is scheduled for October.

Both have pleaded not guilty.

Staff writers Wilborn P. Nobles III and Leon Stafford contributed to this report.


Our reporting

The AJC provided complete coverage of the trial of former Atlanta City Hall official Mitzi Bickers. Investigative reporting by the AJC in 2017 linked Bickers to contractor Elvin “E.R.” Mitchell Jr., the first person to plead guilty in the federal corruption probe. The AJC found Mitchell and a second contractor paid Bickers more than $1.6 million over a period of several years, including while she worked for the city. A federal grand jury later indicted her on charges she accepted more than $2 million and conspired to help the contractors win millions in city business.

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