Pastor Mitzi Bickers, a former city insider, was found guilty Wednesday of operating a cash-for-contracts scheme at Atlanta City Hall, a major victory for prosecutors in the first trial in a sprawling federal investigation that gripped the city’s political class since it became public five years ago.
A jury of six men and six women found Bickers guilty on nine of the dozen felony counts against her, including conspiracy to commit bribery, money laundering, wire fraud and filing false tax returns.
Bickers, a get-out-the-vote guru who helped Kasim Reed win his first run for mayor in 2009 and later joined his administration as director of human services, faces a maximum sentence of more than 100 years behind bars under federal criminal code. But she will likely receive only a fraction of that penalty at sentencing scheduled July 12. She was released on bond after trial.
Bickers, wearing an emerald blazer, showed no emotion as the verdict was read but her mother dabbed her eyes with a tissue and appeared to sob in silence.
Prosecutors alleged Bickers steered some $17 million in sidewalk, bridge work and snow removal contracts to contractors Elvin “E.R.” Mitchell Jr. and Charles P. Richards Jr., who previously pleaded guilty and testified against Bickers.
Bickers received some $2 million in bribes in return, using her connections and influence before and after she left City Hall as well as bribing other officials in the process.
“Today a federal jury found that Mitzi Bickers conspired to use her influence as a high-ranking City of Atlanta official to steer lucrative city contracts to those willing to pay bribes,” U.S. Attorney Kurt Erskine said in a statement. “The illicit arrangement netted millions of dollars for Bickers and the city contractors willing to pay to play.”
Prosecutors outlined a web of bank accounts, deposits, withdrawals and wire transfers that charted the flow of money between Bickers and the contractors. Witnesses described cash drop-offs at Bickers’ home and church, and a series of payments from the contractors that Bickers allegedly used to buy a lakefront home in Henry County, a luxury SUV, jet skis and expensive travel.
The public corruption scandal upended Atlanta city government during the final year of Reed’s administration and has cast a shadow over city politics since becoming public five years ago.
The testimony and evidence presented at trial presented an unsavory picture of how city contracting can be manipulated and exploited for private gain. The trial revealed the names of two current city employees’ connections to the scheme and they have been placed on administrative leave after their names surfaced in court.
Tonya Dale, one of the federal jurors, told reporters after the trial that the money trail laid out by prosecutors was overwhelming.
“We felt like in our deliberations it was easily proven she accepted bribes,” Dale said of Bickers.
Jurors – a panel of eight Blacks and four whites -- deliberated for about seven hours across two days. The jury found Bickers not guilty of one count of conspiracy to commit bribery that involved alleged acts after Bickers left her city job, a count of bribery involving unsuccessful efforts to win contracts in Jackson, Mississippi, and a count of witness tampering.
Bickers defense team tried to paint Mitchell as a liar who sold out others to save his own skin. But attorneys Drew Findling and Marissa Goldberg called no witnesses in Bickers’ defense, relying on their cross-examinations of federal witnesses and their opening and closing remarks to try to seed doubt in the government’s case.
Findling said Bickers will appeal.
Bickers was acquitted of alleged acts in Jackson and after she left her city job in 2013, Findling said. But he said the trial was “haunted” by one of the two implicated city officials who did not testify, but whom Mitchell and prosecutors alleged accepted bribes from Bickers.
“That is a very significant person that was mentioned in opening statements and I will do that person the respect of not mentioning her name,” Findling said, referring to city official Cotena Alexander. Alexander was referenced throughout the trial by prosecutors, witnesses and in exhibits.
“And we did not have the benefit of cross examining that person. It created a lot of difficulty,” Findling said.
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
The federal probe of the Reed administration became public in early 2017 when charges were announced against Mitchell. Bickers, who now works in the Clayton County Sheriff’s Office, was first indicted in 2018 and the bribery charge for activity in Mississippi was added later.
Federal grand juries scrutinized contracts, travel records, credit card receipts and schedules of senior officials -- including Reed. Reed has not been charged and has long denied any wrongdoing.
During last year’s mayoral campaign as Reed sought a return to City Hall, his lawyers said he was informed he was not a target of the investigation. But the taint of corruption derailed his once promising political career as he failed to make the runoff.
In total, seven people have pleaded guilty in the investigation and three others have been indicted.
Allegations in the indictment against Bickers dated back as far as 2010, with Mitchell testifying the bribery scheme started shortly before Reed took office with Bickers approaching him about an annual sidewalk contract that was awarded in 2009.
Bickers had no direct role in contracting. Mitchell testified that the scheme from its earliest days was aided by Alexander, then a senior official in public works who now works in the city’s transportation department. Mitchell also implicated Rita Braswell, another high-ranking public works official, and Katrina Taylor Parks, a former city official who pleaded guilty to accepting bribes from a different city vendor.
The city suspended Alexander and Braswell after their names surfaced in court. Neither has been charged.
Braswell testified about contracting practices and events in 2011 and 2014. Alexander did not testify in the trial, informing the court she would assert her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Dale, the juror, said jurors believed Bickers accepted bribes from Mitchell in the 2014 snow storms, but acquitted her on the second conspiracy charge because prosecutors did not prove Bickers paid bribes to Alexander to influence snow removal contracts at that time.
“We all had a lot of questions and we all wondered why we didn’t hear from her,” Dale said of Alexander.
Findling said Alexander’s inclusion in evidence but absence from the witness stand, will be a focus of Bickers’ appeal.