Feds: Pastor a ‘manipulator’ in City Hall bribery scheme

Defense team says ‘There are massive holes in this case.’
Mitzi Bickers (C) heads towards the Atlanta Federal Courthouse Thursday, March 3, 2022  STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Mitzi Bickers (C) heads towards the Atlanta Federal Courthouse Thursday, March 3, 2022 STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Mitzi Bickers used her skills as a pastor and political consultant to convince a pair of struggling construction contractors to pay her bribes to win millions of dollars in city of Atlanta business, a federal prosecutor alleged Thursday in the opening of her public corruption trial.

For the first time, prosecutors outlined their theory for the case, claiming Bickers manipulated struggling businessmen to line her pockets. The government also linked allegations of wrongdoing that date back years and it alleged that Bickers was assisted by a current high-ranking city official who accepted bribes to influence snow removal contracts in 2014.

Bickers is a get-out-the-vote guru who helped Kasim Reed win his first run for mayor in 2009. She took a job at City Hall as director of human services following the election.

Her $60,000-a-year job had no role in contracting, but prosecutors say she used her influence in helping Reed become mayor to steer business to contractors Elvin R. “E.R.” Mitchell Jr. and Charles P. Richards Jr.

Prosecutors say Bickers hid some $2 million in bribe payments she allegedly received through a web of companies and a series of bank transactions. Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeff Davis said Bickers spent bribe money to buy a $775,000 lakefront home in Henry County, and luxury goods like jet skis and a GMC Acadia Denali SUV.

“This is a case about money, and this is a case about manipulation,” Davis said in his 35-minute opening statement.

Bickers is also accused of bribing officials in Jackson, Mississippi, in an unsuccessful attempt to win pieces of waterworks and convention center hotel contracts.

Mitchell and Richards, who pleaded guilty in 2017 to conspiring to pay bribes, are key government witnesses. The men agreed to cooperate with the government and have already completed their prison sentences.

Mitchell and Richards’ businesses had hit the rocks during the Great Recession, Davis said.

Mitchell and Bickers were longtime friends and business associates. Davis said Mitchell trusted Bickers when she told Mitchell if he paid her, she could get him business.

According to the indictment, Mitchell and Richards combined received some $17 million in city contracts for snow removal as well as sidewalk and bridge repair work from 2010 to 2014.

Mitzi Bickers (L) listens in U.S. District Court in Atlanta on the Wednesday, March 9, 2022, during the first day of jury selection in her public corruption trial. Seated beside her are defense attorneys Marissa Goldberg and Drew Findling. Credit: Artist Lucy Luckovich.

Credit: Sketch artist: Lucy Luckovich

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Credit: Sketch artist: Lucy Luckovich

Marissa Goldberg, an attorney for Bickers, claimed in the defense’s opening statement it’s the government that’s been misled – by Mitchell.

The federal government launched an expensive probe of City Hall, and some people agreed to cooperate under the the weight of the government.

“They were relentless,” Goldberg said.

Goldberg said prosecutors have based their case on Mitchell, whom she called “not credible” and “a hustler and a swindler.”

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

‘‘Got her cut’

Prosecutors allege the scheme started in 2010 when Bickers provided Mitchell and Richards a confidential city document about bridge projects before the solicitation was public, giving them four extra months to craft their bid.

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

But some of the most lucrative work was for snow removal from winter storms in 2011 and 2014.

The city first hired Mitchell to help remove snow in 2011, paying him $1.2 million. Within a two-week period, Davis said, Bickers received about $300,000 in a series of payments from Mitchell.

A few days after the storm, Bickers signed an agreement to buy the lake house she’d been renting for 18 months.

Over the next five months, Bickers put $234,000 down for the home and received another $400,000 for her help in getting Mitchell snow and other work.

In 2014, two snowstorms shut down the city again. This time, the city had a roster of five pre-approved contractors to provide snow removal work.

Mitchell’s company, Cascade Building Systems, wasn’t on the list, Davis said. Yet, Mitchell received the most city business – some $5.5 million for snow removal.

Elvin “E.R.” Mitchell Jr., pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery and launder money in January 2017. AJC FILE

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The prosecutor said Bickers, who left the city in 2013, turned to Cotena Alexander, an operations manager in the Department of Public Works, who selected snow removal contractors.

“She chose Mitchell over the on-call contractors,” Davis said of Alexander.

Over three months, Bickers received about $900,000 after the 2014 winter storms, Davis said. Bickers paid Alexander, who in turn bought money orders to pay off credit debt totaling about $30,000, Davis said.

When reached by phone Thursday, Alexander confirmed she remains a city employee and hung up on an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter.

After the reporter requested comment from Mayor Andre Dickens’ office about Alexander’s employment status, the city responded that Alexander had been placed on leave.

“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,” Dickens spokesman Michael Smith said.

Alexander has not been charged. On Wednesday, Alexander was named by prosecutors as a potential witness during trial.

‘Marketing money’

Thursday was the trial’s first day of testimony, and one of the first witnesses was Richards, one of contractors involved in the alleged scheme.

Richards, a longtime friend of Mitchell’s, said he started working with him on the sidewalk contract in late 2009.

Charles P. Richards Jr. is a contractor who pleaded guilty to paying bribes to win city of Atlanta contracts. Richards was sentenced in 2017 to 27 months in prison, but had his sentence reduced. BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL

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Mitchell allegedly told Richards he thought he could get a piece of the contract even if Richards’ bid was not among the lowest, because of connections Mitchell had inside City Hall.

But to make it happen, Mitchell needed $20,000.

What started as a $750,000 annual contract grew to more than $5 million through 2015 over multiple amendments. Mitchell was the minority contractor.

Mitchell allegedly asked for upfront funds when securing the contracts, which usually cost Richards about 15% to 20% of his cut.

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

Trial will resume Friday beginning with testimony from Richards.

Staff writer Wilborn Nobles contributed to this report.