“I don’t think the case becomes any less important just because it is so old,” said Caren Morrison, a Georgia State University law professor and former federal prosecutor.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Defense attorneys Drew Findling and Marissa Goldberg called the allegations false, and said in a statement the defense remains confident in Bickers’ innocence.
“It is ironic and evidence of a broken criminal legal system that while Pastor Bickers’ stands trial for these erroneous and decade old allegations, in recent years we have seen some of the most egregious acts of public corruption in American history perpetrated at the highest level of the federal government and those individuals continue to remain uncharged,” the attorneys said.
The Bickers case is but one prong in a sprawling investigation of City Hall during Reed’s tenure from 2010 to 2018. The investigation dates to at least 2015, became public in 2017 and dominated headlines throughout Reed’s final full year in office and for the first half of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ term.
Bottoms and City Council ushered in purchasing and other reforms during her four years in office in response to the scandal.
Federal authorities dug into millions of pages of records and contracts in nearly every city department. They combed into city credit card and travel spending. To date, prosecutors have won seven guilty pleas, including from three former city officials. Bickers and three other people have been indicted.
“I don't think the case becomes any less important just because it is so old."
- Caren Morrison, a Georgia State University law professor and former federal prosecutor
Reed has denied any wrongdoing. Still, the scandal derailed his once-promising political career.
In October, in the heat of last year’s mayor’s race as Reed sought to return to City Hall, lawyers for the former mayor said they were informed by prosecutors that Reed was not a target.
A spokeswoman for Reed did not respond to a request for comment last week.
Ties in Atlanta run deep
When jury selection begins Wednesday in U.S. District Court in downtown Atlanta, prosecutors and Bickers’ defense team will narrow a pool of 80 North Georgia residents down to 12 jurors, plus three alternates. Opening arguments could start Thursday, and the trial expected to last two to three weeks.
Bickers is the daughter of the Rev. Benjamin Weldon Bickers, a boyhood friend of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. After her father died, Bickers replaced him in the pulpit at Emmanuel Baptist Church in southeast Atlanta. She won a seat on the Atlanta Board of Education in the early 1990s at age 27 and became a political consultant after a failed run for Fulton County Commission chair.
Investigative reporting by the AJC in 2017 linked former city official Mitzi Bickers to contractor Elvin R. “E.R. “Mitchell Jr., the first person to plead guilty in the Atlanta City Hall corruption probe. The AJC found Mitchell and a second contractor paid Bickers more than $1.6 million over a period of several years, including while she worked for the city. A federal grand jury later indicted her on charges she accepted more than $2 million and conspired to help the contractors win millions in city business. Her federal trial in Atlanta is scheduled to begin Wednesday with jury selection.
A get-out-the-vote guru, Bickers helped Reed edge Mary Norwood in a bitter 2009 mayoral runoff. Bickers parlayed that work into a job in Reed’s administration from 2010 to 2013. She now works as a chaplain for the Clayton County Sheriff’s Office.
Prosecutors have offered glimpses at their case so far, but the Bickers trial will be the deepest look yet at the seedier sides of contracting and political influence at City Hall.
Court filings suggest prosecutors will rely upon bank and business records from about a dozen companies and even her church.
Bickers is also accused of bribery in unsuccessful attempts to win portions of a convention center hotel project and a wastewater program management contract in Jackson, Mississippi.
‘Keep your mouth shut’
The indictment says from 2010 to 2014, Bickers was in cahoots with contractors Elvin “E.R.” Mitchell Jr. and Charles P. Richards Jr., both when she was a city department head and after she resigned from the city under controversy over undisclosed income, which also is part of the indictment.
The government alleges Bickers represented Mitchell and Richards’ businesses and, in some cases, provided them sensitive contracting information. The bribes sometimes were called “up-front money,” but the contractors often paid kickbacks to Bickers after they were paid for services by the city, according to the indictment.
The indictment describes a web of companies and financial transactions used to hide the alleged bribes.
Prosecutors allege Bickers spent money from the scheme to buy a $775,000 lakefront home in Henry County, jet skis, a 1964 Cadillac DeVille and an SUV. Charges also include filing false tax returns, money laundering, wire fraud and witness tampering.
The evidence is expected to include the salacious along with alleged acts that reads like the plot of a pulp crime novel. Filings by prosecutors suggest they will introduce evidence Bickers tried to ply Jackson officials with strippers and that the defendant was involved in an effort to intimidate Mitchell.
In mid-2015, Mitchell was approached by federal authorities and told his associates he intended to cooperate.
In September of that year, Mitchell was awakened at his southwest Atlanta 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, a police incident report from the time show. 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 Barnes and Bickers.
Barnes pleaded guilty in 2018 to attempting to intimidate Mitchell. Mitchell and Richards each pleaded guilty in 2017 to conspiring to pay bribes to win city contracts. The three men, who have already served their prison sentences, have agreed to testify for the government.
Prosecutors indicated in court filings last month they plan to introduce new evidence of allegations of potential witness tampering by Bickers involving a call to a likely witness last August. Her lawyers have said the government mischaracterized the call.
Though delayed, political observers question how prosecutors intend to prove Bickers circumvented city procurement rules and who else might have played a role.
It’s unclear how far the government will go in pulling back the curtain on how business worked inside Reed’s city hall.
But they’ve offered clues. Bickers’ work for and personal history with Reed, prosecutors said in one filing, are key to understanding the scheme.
In a superseding indictment that was handed down in 2019, prosecutors alleged Bickers wielded influence at City Hall even after she left, helping Mitchell and Richards’ companies “through the bribery of at least one public official.”
“The story of her bribery of City of Atlanta officials cannot be told without explaining her relationship with the Reed,” the filing said.
Potential key figures in the Mitzi Bickers trial
Mitzi Bickers: Bickers, a political consultant and pastor, is a daughter of Atlanta’s civil rights royalty and former president of the Atlanta school board. Her father, the Rev. Benjamin Weldon Bickers, was a boyhood friend of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The younger Bickers succeeded her father in the pulpit of Emmanuel Baptist Church. In 2009, Bickers worked as a get-out-the-vote specialist for Kasim Reed in his narrow runoff win in that year’s mayoral race. From 2010 to 2013, Bickers worked in the Reed administration as director of human services. She is currently a chaplain at the Clayton County Sheriff’s Office.
Elvin R. “E.R.” Mitchell Jr.: Mitchell is a longtime Atlanta construction contractor and son of a pioneering African American businessman who founded E.R. Mitchell Co. The younger Mitchell led the firm, another company called Cascade Building Systems and numerous subsidiaries that took part over many years in major government construction projects local schools, the city of Atlanta, Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and the Georgia World Congress Center. The federal probe came to light in January 2017 when Mitchell was charged and pleaded guilty to conspiring with another city contractor, later identified as Charles P. Richards Jr., to pay bribes to win city business.
Charles P. Richards Jr.: Richards, CEO of C.P. Richards Construction Co., was a partner of Mitchell’s and often employed Mitchell’s companies as minority contractors. Richards pleaded guilty to paying at least $185,000 in exchange for city contracts. He was sentenced to 27 months in prison, though that term was shortened to 20 months by a judge, citing his cooperation with prosecutors.
Shandarrick Barnes: Barnes is a friend of Bickers’ who served in various roles in some of her companies. Barnes pleaded guilty in November 2017 to trying to intimidate a federal witness – Mitchell – by throwing a brick through the construction contractor’s window in September 2015. “Shut up ER, keep your mouth shut!!!” was written on the brick and dead rats were scattered around Mitchell’s property. Barnes was sentenced in 2018 to 37 months in prison. He agreed to assist in the investigation as part of his plea.