Atlanta overlooked RICO conviction in hiring of bribery figure

Crime scene photos from the Atlanta Police Department show a brick that landed in Elvin “E.R.” Mitchell’s home in southwest Atlanta in September 2015. Mitchell is a key figure in a federal criminal probe of city of Atlanta contracting.

Crime scene photos from the Atlanta Police Department show a brick that landed in Elvin “E.R.” Mitchell’s home in southwest Atlanta in September 2015. Mitchell is a key figure in a federal criminal probe of city of Atlanta contracting.

In 2014, Shandarrick Barnes told the city of Atlanta in a job application that he’d been the victim of downsizing after his previous employer, Refund Solutions, lost business.

Had they bothered to probe more deeply, officials who offered Barnes employment in the city’s Public Works Department might have learned the real story.

Refund Solutions ran into trouble in 2009 when prosecutors found that the company was a front for an elaborate scheme to defraud DeKalb and Cobb county governments.

Barnes, 41, lost his job when he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for racketeering — which included charges of bribery, forgery and stealing more than $300,000. He re-emerged in 2013 after serving just four years and went to the city in early 2014 looking for work.

Atlanta's decision to offer a job to a convicted felon might never have become public if he had not been identified as a bit player in the bribery investigation swirling around City Hall.

In January, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News reported Barnes was the man federal agents say vandalized the home of contractor Elvin "E.R." Mitchell Jr.

In an attempt to stop Mitchell from talking to the FBI, Barnes threw a brick through Mitchell's front window and placed dead rats on his doorstep, a police report says.

Barnes was still employed by the city at the time of the 2015 incident.

"This is not a low-level thief," said John Melvin, an assistant district attorney in Cobb County who prosecuted Barnes when he worked as an assistant D.A. in DeKalb. "This was a high-level complicated scheme, and the idea that any city government would hire this person is beyond the pale.

“Whoever made that hire needs to be held accountable,” Melvin said. “They literally are letting the fox into the hen house.”

Records obtained by the AJC as part of the federal government’s bribery investigation at City Hall offer clues about how Barnes managed to overcome his criminal record and land employment: first as a temporary trash collector in solid waste, then with a permanent job as storekeeper in the Public Works Department earning $28,000 a year.

They also reveal a culture where who you know matters more than what’s on your resume, critics told the AJC.

"There are people within city government who have enough influence and maybe authority to get people hired outside the process that any normal citizen would go through," said Councilwoman Felicia Moore, a candidate for City Council President.

Connections at City Hall

Barnes’ references on his job application included two names with significant clout at City Hall: Mitzi Bickers and her friend Andrea Boone.

Bickers, a political consultant with a long list of metro-area clients, helped Mayor Kasim Reed win in 2009. She worked for the city from 2010 to 2013 and consulted for Atlanta elected officials long after she left city employment, according to records reviewed by the AJC.

Bickers' role at City Hall and business dealings with Mitchell are a focus of the federal bribery investigation, according to a subpoena delivered to the city in August 2016 and made public last month.

Mitchell and another contractor have admitted to paying more than $1 million bribes to an unnamed individual on the belief that person would pay off people at City Hall with the power to influence contract awards.

Boone, the daughter of the late civil rights leader Joseph E. Boone, is Reed's director of constituent services and was once a top aide to longtime City Councilman C.T. Martin. She is expected to run for Martin's council seat, if Martin makes a run at the council presidency.

Barnes worked for Bickers in several capacities before he went to prison, records reviewed by the AJC show. And he continued to work for her after she left City Hall in 2013, when Barnes was still employed by the city.

Councilman Martin, Boone’s previous boss, also worked in political campaigns with Bickers, and was an officer in a group Bickers formed called Operation Get Out the Vote, an organization that aided Reed’s underdog quest for mayor in 2009.

Bickers has not spoken to the media, and her phone was not accepting calls. Boone declined to answer questions from the AJC about her relationship with Barnes, and if she acted to help get him a job. Barnes has not returned the AJC’s phone calls or messages left at his house.

In a brief interview with the AJC, Martin said he knew Barnes as a person in the community, but said he did not discuss his hiring with Boone. Martin also said he did not know that he was listed in incorporation documents as an officer in Bickers’ Operation Get Out the Vote organization.

“We had worked on a lot of campaigns,” he said of Bickers. “So the answer is yes, I’ve worked on campaigns with her, and she’s worked on political campaigns with me. But that was the extent of the relationship.”

Shandarrick Barnes has been accused of damaging property at the home of Atlanta contractor Elvin “E.R.” Mitchell Jr. in an apparent attempt to keep Mitchell silent. Mitchell is at the center of a federal bribery probe into city of Atlanta contracts. SPECIAL

icon to expand image

HR director: ‘an open hiring policy’

Atlanta and some other big-city governments have sought to relax rules about employing convicted felons, but Barnes’ hiring in February 2014 appears to go well beyond the intent of those second-chance initiatives.

The city changed its hiring policy in October 2014 to prohibit questions about prospective employees' criminal history during initial interviews. Atlanta Human Resources Commissioner Yvonne Yancy said the change codified into law the city's practice of many years.

“The city, for probably four decades, has had an open hiring policy, to give people a second chance,” Yancy said.

Yancy said hiring Barnes was appropriate, and that his defrauding a neighboring municipal government of $300,000 would disqualify him from some city jobs, but not all.

“There is nothing in his background that would preclude him from picking up trash,” Yancy said. “Picking up trash is different than taking money at the counter at the water department, or is different than being a financial analyst, or is different than being in communications.”

Barnes’ job as storekeeper involved handing out equipment requested by others in Public Works, Yancy said.

Councilwoman Moore said she wonders if Barnes was hired over others with similar skills or more experience who didn’t have the baggage of Barnes’ criminal history.

City Councilwoman Mary Norwood, who is running to replace Reed, said fleet management, where Barnes ended up, has been a troublesome area for the city for years. She called it "stunning that the administration would condone that kind of background" in a department that manages parts and inventory.

Norwood supported “ban the box” legislation to assure applicants with minor criminal infractions get a fair shot at city employment. But Barnes’ infractions were far from minor, she said.

“I want everyone to have the opportunity to do good work for the city. To have a second chance,” she said. “But there are times when it is inappropriate to hire someone for such a position.”

Fudging his resume

One thing that would have disqualified Barnes from the city jobs is lying on his resume. And Barnes did just that.

Barnes listed his dates of employment as a senior research analyst with Refund Solutions from June 2003 to April 2013, covering the four years he was incarcerated. He said his role also included client support; serving as a liaison between government and a subcontractor; and researching “financial data to support contract guidelines and budget issues.”

But prosecutors said Refund Solutions’ real business was perpetrating a massive fraud. Barnes was arrested for his part in the scheme in 2009; the company was administratively dissolved in 2011.

Yancy said background checks were mandatory in 2014, when Barnes applied to the city. The background check spotted Barnes’ felony racketeering conviction and a prior one in Georgia for shoplifting. But Yancy couldn’t explain why it missed the obviously false claims on Barnes’ application.

Yancy also said city policy requires that all references for potential employees be contacted. But Boone, who declined to answer any questions emailed to her by the AJC, said through the mayor’s spokeswoman that she was never contacted in regard to Barnes’ employment.

Defrauding two counties

According to incorporation records filed with the Georgia Secretary of State's Office, Refund Solutions was formed in 2007, with Barnes listed as the company's chief executive and chief financial officer.

An indictment in DeKalb County Superior Court said Barnes and a business partner conducted a pair of schemes through Refund Solutions, which posed as an asset recovery company.

One involved forging documents to defraud the DeKalb sheriff and property owners of excess funds collected by the county from the sale of tax liens. In the other, Barnes and his co-conspirators ripped off people who were owed bail bond refunds in DeKalb and Cobb.

In the tax scheme, Barnes and Nathane Hoyte Jones allegedly conspired with an insider at the DeKalb Sheriff's Office to find properties with unpaid taxes that were to be sold on the courthouse steps. When those sales collect more than the outstanding debt, the property owners are entitled to a refund.

Prosecutors said Barnes and Jones forged documents granting them power of attorney to collect the excess. An insider in the sheriff’s office, who also was indicted, was accused of aiding the scheme in exchange for kickbacks. She was acquitted at trial.

Barnes pleaded guilty and agreed to testify. He served the bulk of his time at Wheeler Correctional Facility, a prison 80 miles southeast of Macon in central Georgia.

Jones was convicted as well, and was paroled in 2013.

“Shandarrick is a very savvy person. … There’s something darker at work in Shandarrick,” said Melvin, the prosecutor. “He stole more than $300,000 and has the brain power to trick people.”

Elvin “E.R.” Mitchell Jr., left, stands with his attorney before a crowd of reporters outside the federal courthouse in downtown Atlanta on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2017. Mitchell pleaded guilty to conspiring to pay more than $1 million in bribes as part of a scheme to win city of Atlanta contracts. Dave Huddleston/Channel 2 Action News

icon to expand image

Working for Bickers on city time

Barnes’ business ties to Bickers were extensive, both before and after his prison stint.

Before he went to prison, Bickers listed him as chief financial officer of one of her companies, a marketing and public relations firm called the Bickers Group, state incorporation records show.

Bickers also had deep ties to Mitchell, the contractor — working as a vice president of operations for one of Mitchell’s construction companies. Bickers and Mitchell were co-defendants in a lawsuit over defaulted real estate loans in 2013-2014 that ended in a sealed settlement.

Bickers was identified as CFO of Chateau Land Company, a firm listed as a co-defendant in that case, and corporation records listed Barnes as secretary of Chateau in 2007 and 2008, during the time prosecutors alleged he was running the racketeering scheme.

Records obtained by the AJC show Barnes acted as a trusted confidant, helping Bickers lease office space in Mississippi, book hotel rooms and air travel, wire money and incorporate at least three of her companies.

Barnes did a lot of work for Bickers while he was on the city’s clock, according to emails from his city account.

He arranged hotel stays in Jackson for about two dozen people who appeared to be working for the Bickers Group in June 2014, during the time Bickers was doing campaign work for a political action committee supporting the re-election of U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss. Barnes also took part in the trip.

For his trouble, Barnes was paid $2,300 in 2014 by a Bickers-related firm, according to an IRS Form 1099, which is used to report miscellaneous or freelance income. The document was included in a cache of Barnes’ emails the city turned over to prosecutors in 2016 and released to the media last month.

But the connection also was personal. Barnes and his wife in 2014 discussed over email having Bickers, who also is a pastor, perform a ceremony. The couple was married that year.

City emails also appear to show Bickers and Boone were concerned about Barnes when four city employees in Barnes’ division were arrested on theft charges in March 2015. In an email to his wife on March 30, 2015, Barnes sent a link to an AJC story about the arrests.

“That’s at my location. Crazy part is that Mitzi and Andrea both called to check on me today,” Barnes wrote to his wife.

His wife wrote in reply: “Really… why they thought you had something to do with it?”

“No,” Barnes responded. “just ensuring I stay away from the bull. Or maybe just reaching out or being nosey (sic). Who knows honey.”

His wife’s reply just three minutes later was almost prophetic: “why would you involve yourself with the bull… you have too much to lose.”

Eligible for re-hire

In September of that year, it appears Barnes decided to risk it.

Before sunrise on Sept. 11, 2015, Mitchell woke up to find a brick had been hurled through his living room window and dead rats scattered on his porch and truck.

Written on the brick in red chalk was an unmistakable threat: “ER, keep your mouth shut!!! Shut up.”

But Mitchell didn’t shut up. He has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery and has agreed to cooperate with the investigation and testify in future court proceedings.

On July 1, 2016, city records show Barnes left his public works job for private sector work. His city personnel file states he is eligible for re-hire.

It wasn’t until Nov. 1, more than a year after the vandalism at Mitchell’s home, that Barnes was arrested. An Atlanta Police arrest report states Barnes admitted to federal agents that he vandalized Mitchell’s home, and that he was cooperating with the FBI.

Melvin, the Cobb prosecutor, said Barnes’ release on bond suggests that he is cooperating with the investigation. A vandalism conviction could lead to revocation of parole, sending Barnes back to prison for the remainder of his sentence in the DeKalb case, he said.

“In my case, the moment he got arrested he wanted to cooperate and he started singing,” Melvin said of Barnes. “I can’t imagine he has changed his stripes.

“If he is cooperating, anybody who did business with him, it’s coming.”

Related coverage