Mitzi Bickers sentenced to 14 years in City Hall bribery case

Political operative, pastor, found guilty in March on nine counts in long-running corruption investigation

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify the government’s sentencing recommendation.

Former Atlanta city official Mitzi Bickers was sentenced to 14 years in prison on Thursday in connection to a pay-for-play contracting scheme that rocked City Hall in recent years.

U.S. District Court Judge Steve C. Jones complimented Bickers, the longtime pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in southeast Atlanta, for her years of commitment to the community. But he said that service could not make up for the harm she caused taxpayers in pocketing millions from ill-gotten contracts.

”This was not an accident, this was a deliberate plan to get money,” he said before handing down a sentence of 168 months.

ExploreThe Mitzi Bickers verdict: nine counts guilty, three not guilty

Bickers, 56, who at one time was hailed for helping former Mayor Kasim Reed win his first term in office, was convicted in March of nine of 12 counts from a federal indictment in 2018. Among the charges was conspiracy to commit bribery, money laundering, wire fraud and tax evasion.

She will be on house arrest until contacted to report to prison in Alabama. Her attorneys have said they plan to appeal.

Bickers, who had no direct role in contracting, was accused of using her influence to help steer millions in city construction contracts to prominent Atlanta contractors Elvin R. “E.R.” Mitchell Jr. and Charles P. Richards Jr. while also demanding a cut of the proceeds. Prosecutors said Bickers pocketed more than $2 million in the scheme, depositing the funds in 11 banks. To avoid questions about the funds, she would deposit just shy of the $10,000 threshold that requires financial institutions to report such deposits to the federal government.

The public corruption scandal upended Atlanta city government during the final year of Reed’s administration and has cast a shadow over city politics since becoming public five years ago. The testimony and evidence presented at trial presented an unsavory picture of how city contracting can be manipulated and exploited for private gain.

The trial revealed the names of two current city employees’ connections to the scheme and they were placed on administrative leave after their names surfaced in court.

Federal grand juries scrutinized contracts, travel records, credit card receipts and schedules of senior officials — including Reed. Reed has not been charged and has long denied any wrongdoing.

During last year’s mayoral campaign as Reed sought a return to City Hall, his lawyers said he was informed he was not a target of the investigation. But the taint of corruption derailed his once promising political career as he failed to make the runoff.

In total, seven people have pleaded guilty in the investigation and three others have been indicted.

A distraught Bickers appealed for mercy before the judge, saying that she has struggled through moments of bitterness, anger and humility during the years the investigation hung over her head. Wearing a blue pantsuit and white shirt with a red flower in the lapel, Bickers said the portrait of her that prosecutors created was not the person that she is.

“One of the most devastating moments in my life is when I received the indictment in my hand and it said the United States of America versus Mitzi Bickers,” she said hauntingly, before tears streamed down her face.

She later added, “I refuse to believe that what I have endured in the last nine years of my life is representative of these United States of America.”

Also speaking on Bickers behalf were her wife Keyla Jackson, Bickers’ mother Ethel Bickers and educator Carroll Harrison Braddy.

“I ask you please judge to consider that her absence for the community will be a great loss,” Ethel Bickers said of her daughter.

Atlanta City Hall investigation: previous AJC coverage

The ongoing investigation into corruption at Atlanta City Hall has taken many twists and turns since the first charges were filed in 2017. Here are some links to previous coverage by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

March 22: Closing arguments in the Mitzi Bickers trial

March 16: Key details of the trial

March 10: Opening arguments in the Mitzi Bickers trial

A timeline of key events in the investigation

Who’s who: Photos and details about some of the people mentioned in the investigation

Full coverage: Atlanta City Hall investigation stories from the AJC

In addition to a prison sentence, Judge Jones also ordered Bickers to pay restitution to the city of Atlanta of $2.96 million.

Much of Thursday’s almost four-hour sentencing hearing focused on whether Bickers’ sentence should fall along the same lines as those of Mitchell and Richards, both of whom pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit bribery.

Bickers’ defense team argued that the 30-year sentence that was originally recommended by probationary advisers was too harsh and should be more akin to the 60 months given Mitchell or the 27 months Richards received. During the proceedings the government instead recommended a sentence of 210 months, or 17-and-a-half years.

To do otherwise would be to penalize her for taking her case to a jury, her attorneys Marissa Goldberg and Drew Findling said.

But Jones said Bickers sentence is different because the two men pleaded guilty to only one charge and each carried five years, while Bickers had 12 counts against her. Jones, who oversaw the sentences of Mitchell and Richards, said he gave each man the maximum or close to it.

“I believe in the jury system,” Jones said. “I respectfully disagree with you that Pastor Bickers is being punished for going to trial.”

Our reporting

Investigative reporting by the AJC in 2017 linked pastor and former city official Mitzi Bickers to contractor Elvin “E.R.” Mitchell Jr., the first person to plead guilty in the federal corruption probe of Atlanta City Hall. 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. She was found guilty on nine counts in March.