Atlanta official accused of taking bribes also took pandemic bailout money

During the March trial of Mitzi Bickers, Cotena Alexander (pictured), a deputy commissioner for Atlanta's Department of Transportation, was accused by prosecutors of taking bribes to steer SnowJam contracts in 2014. Alexander has not been criminally charged. The city fired her on April 29. (City Of Atlanta)

Credit: City of Atlanta

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During the March trial of Mitzi Bickers, Cotena Alexander (pictured), a deputy commissioner for Atlanta's Department of Transportation, was accused by prosecutors of taking bribes to steer SnowJam contracts in 2014. Alexander has not been criminally charged. The city fired her on April 29. (City Of Atlanta)

Credit: City of Atlanta

Loan for $99K went to a trucking company with no public record of running trucks

This story was updated on May 5. See editor’s note below.

Years after she allegedly took bribes to steer city snow removal contracts, an Atlanta transportation official received pandemic bailout funds meant to keep workers from losing their jobs, despite making a six-figure government salary at the time.

Federal prosecutors alleged in open court in March that during Atlanta’s crippling SnowJam storm of 2014, Cotena Alexander took tens of thousands of dollars from pastor and former political operative Mitzi Bickers as part of a bribery scheme that resulted in Bickers’ conviction.

The fresh revelation at Bickers’ trial caught Mayor Andre Dickens off guard, as it linked a high-ranking city employee to the years-old bribery scandal. His administration had to scramble to place Alexander on administrative leave and open a new investigation into the allegations. Alexander hasn’t been criminally charged in the Bickers case.

But the bribery allegations aren’t the only questionable activity linked to Alexander, an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has revealed. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, she took advantage of another disaster to raise extra money, records reviewed by the AJC show. Alexander is connected to two questionable loans from the federal Paycheck Protection Program.

Alexander, who was a deputy commissioner for the Department of Transportation, and her then-husband, also a full-time city employee at the time, appear to have obtained $113,000 in federal PPP loans through side businesses registered to their home address in the city of South Fulton.

The AJC shared its findings about the loans with the city on April 25, seeking comment from the mayor. On Wednesday, after this story had been published on AJC.com, the city released information that Cotena Alexander had been fired. Her termination letter was dated Friday, April 29.

Both she and her ex-husband were on the city payroll at the time of the federal loans. Before her firing, Cotena Alexander was paid $170,000 per year for her transportation department job. Gerald Alexander, whom she divorced at the end of 2020, had earned nearly $70,000 per year. Gerald Alexander resigned from the city on April 16. On a city disclosure filed in March he said he worked in the Information Management Department, but when he resigned by email he said he worked in the Watershed Management Department.

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A trucking company that received a $99,000 Paycheck Protection Program loan was registered at Cotena Alexander's home, seen here, in the city of South Fulton, according to Georgia Secretary of State's office records. (Miguel Martinez / Miguel.MartinezJimenez@ajc.com)

Credit: Miguel Martinez / Miguel.MartinezJimenez@ajc.com

A trucking company that received a $99,000 Paycheck Protection Program loan was registered at Cotena Alexander's home, seen here, in the city of South Fulton, according to Georgia Secretary of State's office records. (Miguel Martinez / Miguel.MartinezJimenez@ajc.com)

Credit: Miguel Martinez / Miguel.MartinezJimenez@ajc.com

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A trucking company that received a $99,000 Paycheck Protection Program loan was registered at Cotena Alexander's home, seen here, in the city of South Fulton, according to Georgia Secretary of State's office records. (Miguel Martinez / Miguel.MartinezJimenez@ajc.com)

Credit: Miguel Martinez / Miguel.MartinezJimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez / Miguel.MartinezJimenez@ajc.com

In 2020, Congress and the Trump administration established PPP, a nearly $1 trillion forgivable loan program, to prevent small businesses from going under and to help American workers keep their jobs in the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.

A company had to be operating with payroll expenses in order to be eligible, and the loans had to be spent on wages, rent, mortgage interest or utilities in order to be forgiven. It was illegal to take money for companies that weren’t in operation, or to enlarge loan amounts by inflating employee numbers or payroll expenses.

But the program’s weak safeguards made large sums of money available up front to almost any company that attested they needed it. Hundreds of people have been prosecuted for fraud connected to pandemic bailout loans over the past two years.

Neither of the Alexanders would explain the nature of their outside work or why they needed PPP loans. They did not respond to emails or phone messages from the AJC seeking comment for this story. Cotena Alexander, who still lives in their South Fulton home, closed her front door on a reporter asking about one of the loans.

City officials from the mayor’s administration also declined to comment, citing their investigation.

Money for trucking

Alexander Logistic Services LLC is listed as a long-distance freight-hauling company based at Alexander’s home address, according to records with the Georgia Secretary of State’s office. However, there is nothing in federal or state public records showing it has ever operated as an authorized motor carrier, the AJC found.

The company formed in late 2019, under Gerald Alexander’s name. Cotena Alexander listed the company as an outside source of income in her 2020 financial disclosure filed with the city, while Gerald Alexander did not list the company on his disclosure.

The company filed an application for operating authority with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration in late 2019, saying it had one truck and four drivers and planned to haul freight across state lines. But because it never showed proof of insurance or designated a process agent, the federal agency dismissed its application. There are no public records of the company ever having a truck inspected roadside or at a weight station.

The company has never registered any vehicles with the state. According to the Georgia Department of Public Safety, Alexander Logistic isn’t authorized to operate trucks within the state or across state lines.

In its loan application, the company said it employed five people. Georgia requires most companies with three or more employees to provide workers’ compensation insurance, but Alexander Logistic has no record of providing insurance with the State Board of Workers’ Compensation.

None of that stopped the company from receiving $99,000 from PPP in June 2020, records show.

The Secretary of State’s office administratively dissolved Alexander Logistic Services in September 2021 after it failed to submit its annual registration and pay fees.

Terry Jackson, an Atlanta attorney who specializes in litigation involving trucking companies and examined state and federal records on the company for the AJC, said he can’t rule out that Alexander Logistic was doing some other type of work during the pandemic. But any work that involved trucking would have been illegal because they had none of the required state and federal approvals on file, he said.

“Based on the information that’s publicly available, they do not have any vehicles,” Jackson said. “They never obtained federal motor carrier authority. And they never obtained state of Georgia motor carrier authority for interstate operations.

“My conclusion would be it wasn’t a motor carrier,” he said.

Joyce Kitchens, an employment lawyer who advises government and private entities, said another question is whether the trucking company would have been subject to Cotena Alexander’s oversight as a deputy transportation commissioner. Alexander had been overseeing the city’s Office of Transportation Infrastructure Management before being put on administrative leave.

“For a commissioner who regulates transportation to own a transportation company, or to have a financial interest in a transportation company, would certainly raise red flags and could be construed as a conflict of interest,” Kitchens said.

Competing interests?

Some Atlanta officials are concerned that the city’s internal controls apparently missed red flags on Alexander.

When the mayor was asked about her at an AJC editorial board meeting last month, he said the city may need to revisit its financial disclosure practices that require employees to report outside sources of income.

“Sometimes you find people that did not even report their conflicts of interest and then we discover them,” Dickens said.

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When Cotena Alexander's name surfaced during Mitzi Bickers' federal trial in March, it was the first time Alexander had faced any public scrutiny in connection with the bribery scandal that cast a pall over the administration of former Mayor Kasim Reed. Current Mayor Andre Dickens' administration had to scramble to place Alexander on administrative leave and open a new investigation into the allegations. (Tyson Horne / Tyson.Horne@ajc.com)

Credit: Tyson Horne / Tyson.Horne@ajc.com

When Cotena Alexander's name surfaced during Mitzi Bickers' federal trial in March, it was the first time Alexander had faced any public scrutiny in connection with the bribery scandal that cast a pall over the administration of former Mayor Kasim Reed. Current Mayor Andre Dickens' administration had to scramble to place Alexander on administrative leave and open a new investigation into the allegations. (Tyson Horne / Tyson.Horne@ajc.com)

Credit: Tyson Horne / Tyson.Horne@ajc.com

caption arrowCaption
When Cotena Alexander's name surfaced during Mitzi Bickers' federal trial in March, it was the first time Alexander had faced any public scrutiny in connection with the bribery scandal that cast a pall over the administration of former Mayor Kasim Reed. Current Mayor Andre Dickens' administration had to scramble to place Alexander on administrative leave and open a new investigation into the allegations. (Tyson Horne / Tyson.Horne@ajc.com)

Credit: Tyson Horne / Tyson.Horne@ajc.com

Credit: Tyson Horne / Tyson.Horne@ajc.com

Atlanta City Councilman Howard Shook said both the annual disclosures and the city Inspector General’s office are supposed to flag potential conflicts. He called the AJC’s findings disturbing.

“It makes my socks roll up and down,” Shook said. “The one boilerplate question that ends up getting people is, ‘Do you have other employment?’ And that’s been the reason to fire some people in the past.”

Since her divorce, Cotena Alexander has formed another trucking company called CPC Transport. But the new company also has no public record of operating as a federal- or state-authorized motor carrier.

“If she has potentially-fictitious trucking companies, and she’s supposed to be head of transportation, that’s not a good look,” said Caren Morrison, a Georgia State University law professor and former federal prosecutor.

In 2021, another PPP loan for $14,000 went directly to Cotena Alexander. When she applied, Alexander listed the loan as retaining one job in a business that does marketing consulting services, federal data shows.

Federal records don’t list a business name affiliated with the loan. But Alexander has a company called CPC Consulting, registered with the state under her name and home address, which she has been reporting to the city on her annual financial disclosures as an outside source of income since 2017. Through CPC Consulting, she received additional money meant to help businesses weather the coronavirus crisis — $3,800 from the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program in 2020, federal records show.

Her city financial disclosures offer no details on what the consulting company does or who its clients are, other than mentioning “retail trade.” Neither that company nor the trucking companies are contractors for the city, records show.

Experts on business loans said a well-compensated government employee taking a PPP loan seems to at least violate the spirit of the federal program. Kathleen Day, a lecturer at Johns Hopkins Carey Business School and an expert on financial crises and bailouts, said that, based on the AJC’s findings, it’s possible that Alexander may have double-dipped into taxpayers’ wallets.

“This was meant to give people something so that they can keep the lights on,” Day said.

Outed in court

Alexander, 49, had worked with the city of Atlanta for 22 years, steadily working her way up the ladder in City Hall from transportation maintenance jobs to a deputy commissioner role.

When her name surfaced during the federal trial in March it was the first time Alexander had faced any public scrutiny in connection with the bribery scandal that cast a pall over the administration of former Mayor Kasim Reed. During the period of the alleged bribes, she was working as an operations director for Atlanta’s Public Works department.

Alexander was mentioned in the prosecution’s opening argument as a person who accepted money in exchange for steering contracts to former city contractor Elvin “E.R.” Mitchell Jr., the government’s star witness against Bickers — who was convicted on nine of 12 counts in March.

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During Atlanta's crippling SnowJam debacle in 2014, Cotena Alexander allegedly took bribes from former political operative Mitzi Bickers in exchange for steering cleanup work to former city contractor Elvin “E.R.” Mitchell Jr., prosecutors alleged in open court in March. Alexander, who was working as an operations director for Atlanta’s Public Works department at the time, has not been criminally charged. (Ben Gray / Ben@BenGray.com)

Credit: Ben Gray / Ben@BenGray.com

During Atlanta's crippling SnowJam debacle in 2014, Cotena Alexander allegedly took bribes from former political operative Mitzi Bickers in exchange for steering cleanup work to former city contractor Elvin “E.R.” Mitchell Jr., prosecutors alleged in open court in March. Alexander, who was working as an operations director for Atlanta’s Public Works department at the time, has not been criminally charged. (Ben Gray / Ben@BenGray.com)

Credit: Ben Gray / Ben@BenGray.com

caption arrowCaption
During Atlanta's crippling SnowJam debacle in 2014, Cotena Alexander allegedly took bribes from former political operative Mitzi Bickers in exchange for steering cleanup work to former city contractor Elvin “E.R.” Mitchell Jr., prosecutors alleged in open court in March. Alexander, who was working as an operations director for Atlanta’s Public Works department at the time, has not been criminally charged. (Ben Gray / Ben@BenGray.com)

Credit: Ben Gray / Ben@BenGray.com

Credit: Ben Gray / Ben@BenGray.com

Prosecutors didn’t give an exact amount of money Alexander allegedly received but said in court that she used the funds Bickers paid her to purchase about $30,000 in money orders to pay off credit card debt.

It’s not clear how Alexander may have avoided charges or if she has agreed to cooperate with the government. The office of the Northern District of Georgia U.S. Attorney declined to comment and wouldn’t say if investigators are aware of the PPP loans linked to her.

It was defense attorneys who subpoenaed Alexander to testify during Bickers’ trial, but after prosecutors outed her, she told the court she would assert her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination if called to the stand. That prompted Bickers’ attorneys to ask for a mistrial, but the judge in the case denied their request.

Mayor Dickens put Alexander, as well as another employee mentioned in court as an alleged co-conspirator who hasn’t been criminally charged, on paid leave while the city investigated their alleged involvement in the scheme. The other employee, Rita Braswell, the city’s administrative program manager in Public Works, was fired on Monday. Her salary was $141,000.

During his AJC editorial board meeting, the mayor called the probe a “personnel issue” and suggested there may be outside involvement, saying “there’s an investigation going on by higher authorities than in the city.”

“We’re trying to work as expeditiously as possible,” said Atlanta City Attorney Nina Hickson, who advised the mayor not to say more. “But it does take some time.”

Editor’s Note: This story was updated hours after publication on Wednesday, May 4, to reflect information the Dickens administration released about the city of Atlanta’s firing of Cotena Alexander and Rita Braswell. The story was also updated May 5 to reflect information the Dickens administration released about the resignation of Gerald Alexander. The AJC started asking the Dickens administration questions about the PPP loans several weeks ago. An AJC reporter asked Mayor Dickens about the Alexanders during an April 14 editorial board meeting. Gerald Alexander resigned two days later, but the Dickens administration didn’t disclose this information to the AJC until Thursday, May 5.


Our reporting

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has been covering the city of Atlanta’s bribery scandal for more than five years and learned of city employee Cotena Alexander’s alleged involvement during a federal trial in March. After receiving a tip from a reader, the AJC started investigating questionable Paycheck Protection Program loans linked to Alexander in early April. Reporters reviewed online business filings, federal records with the PPP program and records related to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to learn more about side businesses registered to Alexander and her ex-husband. The AJC also interviewed city officials, experts with knowledge of the trucking industry and employment experts to inform their reporting. The AJC made multiple attempts to reach Alexander and her ex-husband, Gerald Alexander, including through email, phone messages and visiting Alexander’s home address, but they did not respond to those requests for comment.