Atlanta corruption probe: Bickers makes first court appearance on bribery charges

In handcuffs and leg irons, The Rev. Mitzi Bickers made her first appearance in federal court Thursday to face charges that she took $2 million in bribes to steer city of Atlanta contracts to at least two contractors from 2010 to 2015.

Bickers pleaded not guilty to the 11-count indictment and answered yes or no questions from U.S. Magistrate Court Judge Russell Vineyard. She was scheduled to be released on a $50,000 appearance bond later today. Her attorney, Richard Hendrix, declined comment following the hearing at the Richard B. Russell Federal Building.



Prosecutors accused the former city of Atlanta human services director of taking money from contractors to help them win city contracts and spending the money on a lavish lifestyle that included: a $775,000 home in Jonesboro; a $46,000 Denali luxury SUV; $45,000 worth of waverunner jet skis; and vacations to Aruba, Disney resorts and on Carnival cruise lines.

Bickers was a highly sought-after political operative who helped former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed get elected in 2009, then went on to work in Reed's administration for three years.

The 11-count indictment alleges Bickers used her influence at City Hall to steer contracts to Elvin “E.R.” Mitchell Jr. and Charles P. Richards Jr., both when she worked for the city and after she left in 2013. Mitchell and Richards have each pleaded guilty and are cooperating with the on-going investigation.

At a 2 p.m. press conference, U.S. Attorney Byung “BJay” Pak urged others who participated in the conspiracy to come forward, accept responsibility and cooperate with the investigation.

“To those employees who may have taken cash, gratuity or other items of value from the individual named in this indictment, now is your time,” he said. “There is a very small window of opportunity for you to help yourself in accepting full responsibility for being part of this conspiracy and for cooperating with the government. That is the only way you can assure you can minimize your criminal exposure.”

“Our investigation and prosecution of this matter is continuing and we will continue with or without you. Your time is now.”

In the 23-page indictment, prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Atlanta lay out a complicated web of payments made from various companies controlled by Mitchell to companies under Bicker’s control. Multiple payments in relatively small amounts were made by Mitchell to Bickers in an attempt to hide the nature of the transactions, according to the indictment.

The indictment also says Bickers conspired with “others known and unknown” to pull off the bribery scheme.

“Bickers conspired to enrich herself and others by soliciting and accepting payments directly and indirectly from Mitchell and Richards and their companies in exchange for her agreement to represent their businesses and to obtain lucrative City of Atlanta contracts for their companies through bribery,” the indictment says.

Credit: David Barnes

Credit: David Barnes

Bickers’ purchase of the $775,000 home in Jonesboro on her $57,000 city salary has long been the subject of media reports since the bribery investigation became public in January 2017. The indictment goes into detail about how the home was purchased: Mitchell made $200,000 in cash deposits directly to the seller; from June 20-27, 2011, Mitchell made 12 deposits of $9,500 or more in at least four different bank accounts owned or controlled by Bickers, along with another deposit of $85,000; on June 27-28, Richards made wire transfers of $53,000 and $20,000 into Bickers’ controlled accounts.

Bickers spent that money on the house almost immediately, according to the indictment, making wire transfers of $81,000, $104,000 and $114,000 to her closing attorney in a two-day span.

She is also charged with tax fraud in that year.

“In her 2011 tax return, Bickers represented … that her total income for 2011 was $57,986,” the indictment says. “Based on the false representations in her return, the IRS issued Bickers a tax refund of $3,924.”

The bribery scheme continued in 2014, with Bickers helping Mitchell secure some $5.5 million in snow removal contracts from the city, despite Mitchell’s company not owning a snow plow. In return, Mitchell paid her about $1.4 million, according to the indictment.

The indictment also alleges Bickers, “aided and abetted by others,” tried to threaten Mitchell, who by mid-2015 had been approached by the feds and decided to cooperate with the feds. In September of that year, a brick came crashing through a window in Mitchell’s home with a message for him to keep his mouth shut, and dead rats were left on his property.

Authorities later identified the assailant as Shandarrick Barnes, an associate of Mitchell and Bickers and a former city of Atlanta employee. Barnes pleaded guilty to trying to intimidate a federal witness in connection with the brick-throwing incident. Barnes has agreed to cooperate as well.

Barnes is scheduled to be sentenced to federal prison on Monday.

-- Check and later today for updates.

Mitzi Bickers: A timeline 

1966: Born in Atlanta to Ethel and the Rev. Benjamin Weldon Bickers, founder of Emmanuel Baptist Church in southeast Atlanta.

1989: Graduated from Spelman College.

1993: Elected to Atlanta Board of Education at age 27.

1998: Became pastor at Emmanuel Baptist.

2003: Resigned from school board to run for Fulton County Commission chairman; finished third in a four-candidate race.

March 2004: Formed the Bickers Group, a political consulting firm

October 2004: Files for bankruptcy. During bankruptcy, she goes to work as an executive for one of Elvin "E.R." Mitchell Jr.'s companies, and withdraws her bankruptcy plea after receiving a pair of bonuses.

2009: Worked for Kasim Reed's campaign for Atlanta mayor, conducting get-out-the-vote activities for a runoff election under a company called Operation Get Out The Vote.

2010: Hired as director of human services for the city of Atlanta. While a city employee, collected $875,827 in political consulting fees; clients included former DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis, former Gov. Roy Barnes, and Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill. She took a 76-day leave of absence in 2012 to work on various campaigns.

July 2011: Acquires a $775,000 home on Lake Spivey in Henry County with a $251,000 mortgage furnished by the seller, court records show. Meaning she paid nearly $524,000 down.

August 2012: The $251,000 mortgage is satisfied, court records show.

March 2013: Steps down from job with the city of Atlanta.

September 2015: A brick crashes through a window at Mitchell's Atlanta home. Dead rats also were left on his property. Mitchell tells Atlanta police he is working with federal investigators on a case. An associate of Bickers and Mitchell's, Shandarrick Barnes, is later charged in the incident.

August 2016: Subpoenas delivered to the city of Atlanta for records related to Bickers and Keylah Jackson.

October 2016: Bickers joins Clayton County Sheriff's office as a chaplain.

November 2016: Bickers takes out a mortgage with a bail bondsman for $88,701.41 backed by the Lake Spivey home.

November 2016: Subpoenas delivered to the city for records related to Mitchell and Charles P. Richards Jr, another city contractor.

January 2017: Charges against Mitchell become public. He pleads guilty in federal court. Emails show attorneys for Bickers are pushing back against U.S. prosecutors investigating Bickers' finances.

April 2018: Bickers indicted on charges that she took $2 million in bribes to steer city of Atlanta contracts to at least two contractors from 2010 to 2015. Makes first court appearance and pleads not guilty.

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