Federal star witness outlines Atlanta bribery scheme

Former city contractor says he delivered $100,000 in a laptop bag to defendant’s home

A former contractor to the city of Atlanta and the government’s star witness in the federal bribery trial of Pastor Mitzi Bickers took the stand Wednesday as prosecutors sought to connect the former Atlanta City Hall official to the alleged pay-to-play scheme.

Elvin “E.R.” Mitchell Jr. is a central figure in the sprawling case against Bickers, a former political operative and City Hall employee, who stands accused of helping direct some $17 million in city work to Mitchell and fellow contractor Charles P. Richards Jr. from 2010 to 2014.

Bickers is accused of receiving some $2 million in bribes. Prosecutors allege Bickers shared some of those funds with at least one city of Atlanta official, both when Bickers was a city employee and after she left her City Hall job in 2013.

Mitchell testified Wednesday that his business had been walloped by the Great Recession, and he’d laid off nearly all his workers. He said that the idea for the bribery scheme started with Bickers.

Sometime in 2009, right before Bickers started as the city’s director of human services, Mitchell said Bickers approached him about an annual sidewalk contract she thought Mitchell could win. Then, Mitchell said, she sought a bribe —$100,000.

In its opening statement last week, the government alleged Bickers is a manipulator who took advantage of struggling contractors to line her own pockets.

“What did your company need to stay afloat?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Nathan Kitchens asked Mitchell on Wednesday.

“Projects,” Mitchell said. He agreed to participate, even though he said he didn’t have the money and because with kids in school, “I needed the work.”

Mitchell said at the time he did not have business insurance the city required to bid. Mitchell said he contacted Richards, who had more experience with concrete work, to be the prime contractor and asked him to help front the money. Mitchell said Richards expressed unease, but he sent a check to Mitchell, who later cashed it and provided the $100,000 in a laptop bag to Bickers at her home.

“Ms. Bickers indicated she preferred cash to avoid the IRS,” Mitchell said.

Richards prepared the bid in 2009, before the period in which Bickers is charged, and Mitchell said Richards’ bid came in as the highest. Still, Mitchell said he and Richards won some 20% of the annual contract’s scope of work for a contract that grew into the millions.

“Who did you bribe?” Kitchens asked.

“Mitzi Bickers,” Mitchell replied. Asked how often, Mitchell said: “Countless.”

Mitchell will return to the stand Thursday for more government questions before being cross examined by Bickers’ defense.

Bickers’ attorneys Drew Findling and Marissa Goldberg have tried to establish Mitchell as untrustworthy and they are expected to attack Mitchell’s credibility, past business conduct and lawsuits.

In her opening statement last week, Goldberg called him “a hustler and a swindler.”

The defense will also likely introduce to jurors Mitchell’s apparent work starting in 2006 as an FBI informant tasked with finding public officials to bribe. Mitchell started working with the FBI to avoid prosecution in an unrelated matter more than 15 years ago.

Key witness expected to plead fifth

On the stand Wednesday, Mitchell outlined his relationship with Bickers.

The contractor said he met Bickers when she was on the Atlanta Board of Education in the 1990s and she worked for a different construction company. Mitchell wanted to hire her then in a government relations role, but said he was barred from doing so because he had Atlanta Public Schools contracts.

Mitchell eventually hired Bickers after she was off the school board and she worked for one of Mitchell’s companies for about a year before he was forced to let her go. But Bickers later worked as a contractor for Mitchell for about a year. Mitchell said Bickers never sought a bribe from him before the sidewalk contract in 2009.

Mitchell also linked a senior city official, Cotena Alexander, as someone who Bickers told him she paid bribes to help steer the sidewalk work.

The government alleged statement last week that Alexander took bribes in 2014 to help steer snow removal work to Mitchell that year. But Mitchell connected Alexander to the alleged scheme in 2009 or 2010, some four or five years earlier than the government previously said publicly.

Alexander, who had been expected to be a government witness, has instead told prosecutors she will refuse to testify and exercise her right under the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution against self-incrimination.

Alexander did not respond to a request for comment. The city suspended Alexander after her name surfaced last week in the prosecution’s opening statement.

Alexander’s attorney David Jones told the court after jurors had been sent home for the day that he had advised his client to plead the fifth. Because of that, U.S. District Court Judge Steve C. Jones said he did not plan to make her testify.

“I’m not going to force an opinion and make her come in,” he said.

Whether Alexander would testify came up on Tuesday when Bickers’ defense attorneys, who had subpoenaed her to speak, learned that she ultimately would not. Findling said he was further confused about her intentions because she was outside the courtroom on the first day of the trial.

Jones said Alexander came to the courthouse because of the subpoena, but did not plan to testify.

--Staff writer Wilborn Nobles contributed to this report.

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