Former Jackson, Miss., Mayor Tony Yarber had a special relationship with Atlanta.
He had chauffeured limousine rides whenever he came to town, according to his testimony in federal court on Friday in the Atlanta City Hall corruption trial.
When he visited several times in 2014, Yarber said, he flew in on a private plane or first-class on Delta Air Lines. He stayed at the Ritz-Carlton downtown. A beautiful woman accompanied him to buy clothes for a Maze Featuring Frankie Beverly outdoor concert he attended free of charge.
The patron of this largesse, federal prosecutors allege, was Pastor Mitzi Bickers.
Bickers, a former political operative and city employee, is accused of receiving $2 million in a cash-for-contracts scheme at Atlanta City Hall. But on Friday prosecutors outlined allegations she used her influence in getting Yarber elected mayor of Mississippi’s capital city to try to swing Jackson city contracts her way.
Prosecutors say Bickers was giving Yarber the star treatment because she was laying the ground work get a bite of a $1 billion contract to fix Jackson’s 100-plus year old sewer system as well as a piece of another $75 million contract for a new convention center hotel.
Bickers, who is credited with helping former Mayor Kasim Reed win his first term in office, was Atlanta’s director of human services from 2010 to 2013.
After Bickers left City Hall, prosecutors said, she turned her attention to Jackson in 2014 after the Mississippi capital and the EPA signed a Consent Decree on the city’s sewers. She persuaded two Atlanta area contractors who pleaded guilty to paying her bribes to donate thousands to Yarber’s campaign for mayor and signed on as a minority partner with infrastructure giant AECOM to be part of the bid to fix the sewers. She also collaborated with a second company, Mississippi Developers, to work on the hotel.
To persuade Yarber, Bickers also offered her campaign help, including sending close to a dozen get-out-the vote volunteers from Atlanta to motivate residents to go to the polls and a trip to New Orleans, where he was wined and dined and given a lap dance at city strip club, he testified on Friday.
The persuasion campaign also included several fundraisers at Bickers’ $775,000 lakeside home in Henry County. Yarber said the events felt like he was on the set of “The Real Housewives of Atlanta.”
“It was a lot of Black folks with money,” he said.
Defense attorney Marissa Goldberg in cross-examination of Yarber said Bickers work was not a set up for bribery, but a meeting of the minds of two people who shared a similar view. She said the fact that Bickers asked for nothing in return says she was supporter of his goals, not a sinister ploy for business.
“I feel at this point , I had a lot of respect for Miss Bickers and I hate that I’m here,” Yarber said.
Among the witnesses who took the stand Friday was Stephanie Coleman, a former city of Jackson contracting official.
Coleman testified Bickers invited her to dinner to discuss getting certification as a disadvantaged business to win city contracts.
Coleman told the jury Bickers had said she was directed to Coleman by the Jackson mayor to get an equal business opportunity application and that Bickers needed Coleman’s help to obtain the consent decree contract work.
“She mentioned that she was a longtime friend of the mayor,” Coleman said. “She told me she knew she was gonna be a part of that contract.”
But Coleman told Bickers that she could not help Bickers with her application because that would be illegal. Bickers also told Coleman that she was working with AECOM.
Despite the effort to win influence in Mississippi, Bickers struck out on securing the contracts and immediately closed her offices in Jackson and left town. The calls that she and Yarber had on an almost daily basis ended and he said Friday they have had very little contact since then.
Prosecutors on Friday also called to the witness stand a finance director on Yarber’s mayoral campaign and the former mayor’s executive assistant. Prosecutors asked if Bickers ever sent an invoice for the work.
She never did, according to their testimony.