Feds allege accused in Atlanta bribery probe contacted witness

The Rev. Mitzi Bickers at the Richard B. Russell Federal Building after her first appearance in federal court on Thursday, April 5, 2018. Bickers faces charges that she took $2 million in bribes to steer city of Atlanta contracts to at least two contractors from 2010 to 2015. She was released on a $50,000 appearance bond. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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The Rev. Mitzi Bickers at the Richard B. Russell Federal Building after her first appearance in federal court on Thursday, April 5, 2018. Bickers faces charges that she took $2 million in bribes to steer city of Atlanta contracts to at least two contractors from 2010 to 2015. She was released on a $50,000 appearance bond. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Court filing: “She wanted to ‘get this (expletive) nipped in the bud’”

A former city official facing bribery and witness tampering charges in the Atlanta City Hall corruption investigation faces new allegations that she contacted a potential witness and sought contact information for another ahead of her trial, federal prosecutors said Wednesday in a court filing.

Mitzi Bickers, a political operative once linked to mayor Kasim Reed, is accused of steering a multi-million-dollar pay-to-play scheme involving public works contracts during Reed’s administration. The 12-count indictment also alleges Bickers sought to influence city contracting in Jackson, Mississippi.

Bickers is a pastor at Emmanuel Baptist Church in southeast Atlanta and serves as a chaplain for the Clayton County Sheriff’s Office. She had been scheduled to go to trial in federal court in Atlanta in January, but the pandemic delayed the trial. It is now scheduled to start on March 9.

Prosecutors allege in the new filing that Bickers got a co-worker last August to call a potential federal witness. Once the witness was on the phone, Bickers took the co-worker’s cell phone and allegedly sought contact information for a second potential witness.

Bickers told the witness that “she wanted to ‘get this (expletive) nipped in the bud’” as the January trial date approached, prosecutors allege. Bickers also reminded the federal witness of an incident in which a third potential witness “fell” into Bickers’ swimming pool, prosecutors allege.

The co-worker and potential witnesses are not named in the court filing and it’s unclear how federal authorities learned of the new allegations.

Bickers has pleaded not guilty. No additional charges have been filed in relation to the August phone call.

In a filing late Wednesday afternoon, Bickers’ attorneys objected to the admission of such testimony. Attorneys Drew Findling and Marissa Goldberg accused the government of “attempting to paint an innocuous phone call into something sinister by manipulating the report and cherry-picking phrases out of context.”

“In reality, the conduct relayed in the government’s notice amounts to nothing more than Ms. Bickers attempting to locate the contact information of a potential witness so that she could give it to her counsel, as is her constitutional right as a criminal defendant to interview witnesses and effectively present a defense,” Findling and Goldberg wrote.

The defense attorneys also said it was improper for the government to make this evidence public a week before a potential jury pool is to be summoned.

Bickers is expected to be the first person to stand trial in the Atlanta corruption probe, which dates to at least 2015.

In Wednesday’s court filing, prosecutors said they intend to use testimony about the August incident against Bickers at trial, specifically in relation to the witness tampering charge and another involving alleged bribery of Mississippi officials.

Esther Panitch, a criminal defense attorney who has closely followed the case, said it isn’t a slam dunk that the government will be able to use this evidence to help prove allegations of prior witness tampering.

“You can’t say because (the defendant) did this this one time that they did it other times,” Panitch said.

But a judge might allow it if prosecutors can show it proves intent or shows that the defendant’s conduct wasn’t the result of a mistake or accident, Panitch said.

Bickers served as a political consultant to Reed in his first run for mayor in 2009 and parlayed that work into a job in Reed’s administration as director of human services from 2010 to 2013.

Prosecutors allege Bickers positioned herself to influence city officials to steer contracts to a pair of construction company CEOs, even though she had no direct role in procurement. The bid steering continued even after she left her city job, according to her indictment.

Reed has not been accused of any wrongdoing and he has long denied any involvement.

The new allegations that Bickers contacted a potential witness are notable because one of the dozen charges against her involves the alleged intimidation of former city contractor Elvin R. “E.R.” Mitchell Jr.

Mitchell was the first of two city contractors to plead guilty in 2017 to conspiring to pay $2 million in bribes to Bickers, who allegedly helped the contractors win some $17 million in snow removal and sidewalk contracts. Mitchell has already served his prison sentence and has agreed to cooperate with the government as part of his plea deal.

In the summer of 2015, Mitchell was confronted by federal authorities and told associates he would cooperate with the government, prosecutors have said. Days later, Mitchell was awakened at his home before dawn to the sound of a brick crashing through his window, prosecutors have alleged.

“Shut up ER, keep your mouth shut!!!” was written on the brick and dead rats were found around his property, court records and a police incident report from the time show.

Another alleged co-conspirator, Shandarrick Barnes, pleaded guilty in 2017 to attempting to intimidate Mitchell and promised to testify against Bickers. Barnes was sentenced to 37 months in federal prison and has completed his sentence.

Prosecutors said in 2018 Bickers did not directly order Barnes to toss the brick through Mitchell’s window but made it clear Mitchell’s cooperation spelled the end to a gravy train for himself and Bickers, who was then his boss and a long-time friend.