Jury set for first Atlanta City Hall corruption trial

Opening statements in case against Reed operative Mitzi Bickers begin Thursday
Mitzi Bickers, second from left, heads towards the Atlanta Federal Courthouse Thursday, March 3, 2022, for a pre-trial conference. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Mitzi Bickers, second from left, heads towards the Atlanta Federal Courthouse Thursday, March 3, 2022, for a pre-trial conference. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

A jury is set, and opening statements will begin Thursday in the Atlanta City Hall bribery trial of Mitzi Bickers, a pastor and political operative accused of helping a pair of construction contractors win millions of dollars in city contracts.

Federal prosecutors and Bickers’ lawyers on Wednesday narrowed a pool of about 80 North Georgia residents to a dozen jurors and three alternates for a trial that is expected to last two to three weeks. The case is the first in the corruption investigation into the administration of former Mayor Kasim Reed to go before a jury.

The 15 members — eight women and seven men— were sworn in Wednesday.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Davis also revealed the names of potential witnesses that might be called. They include Candace Byrd, Reed’s former chief of staff, and former Atlanta Public Works Commissioner Richard Mendoza.

The sprawling corruption investigation dominated headlines in Atlanta for the better part of four years.

Prosecutors, defense attorneys and U.S. District Court Judge Steve C. Jones peppered jurors about their answers in questionnaires and to attorneys’ questions that suggested some might have preconceived notions about Bickers or corruption at City Hall. Several jurors said they had seen media coverage of the scandal.

Another common theme of jury selection was negative sentiment about Reed.

“To be clear, former Mayor Kasim Reed is not on trial here and he will not be a witness,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Nathan Kitchens said. “The only person on trial is Mitzi Bickers.”

Reed has denied any wrongdoing and his lawyers late last year said he was informed by prosecutors that he is not a target of the investigation.

Defense attorneys Drew Findling and Marissa Goldberg sought to root out potential bias against Bickers because she is lesbian and a female pastor.

Some prospective jurors said they opposed same sex marriage or homosexuality. The lawyers asked several prospective jurors if they could set aside their beliefs and solely judge Bickers on the evidence, and they said they could.

Mitzi Bickers (L) listens in U.S. District Court in Atlanta on the Wednesday, March 9, 2022, during the first day of jury selection in her public corruption trial. Seated beside her are defense attorneys Marissa Goldberg and Drew Findling. Credit: Artist Lucy Luckovich.

Credit: Sketch artist: Lucy Luckovich

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Credit: Sketch artist: Lucy Luckovich

Bickers, a get-out-the-vote-guru, helped Reed win his first run for mayor in 2009. She parlayed that work into a job at City Hall as director of human services. Federal prosecutors allege that from 2010 to 2014, Bickers orchestrated a cash-for-contracts scheme involving emergency snow removal, bridge repair and sidewalk projects.

Bickers did not have an official hand in contracting, but prosecutors contend she used her influence at City Hall both during her role as director of human services and after she left the Reed administration to help steer $17 million in city work to two construction contractors. Prosecutors allege Bickers and her companies received more than $2 million in bribe payments.

She faces allegations that she conspired 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 in 2013 under controversy over undisclosed income, which also is part of the indictment.

The indictment describes a web of companies and financial transactions used to hide the alleged bribes.

Bickers is accused of spending money from the scheme to buy a $775,000 lakefront home in Henry County, jet skis, a 1964 Cadillac DeVille and an SUV.

She faces a dozen counts, with charges including bribery, money laundering, wire fraud and witness tampering.

Mitchell and Richards, who accepted plea deals, are expected to testify against Bickers. Another expected witness is Shandarrick Barnes, a friend and former employee of Bickers who pleaded guilty to trying to intimidate Mitchell.

Among the 12 counts against her, Bickers is also accused of attempting to bribe officials in Jackson, Mississippi, to win contracts there. Former Jackson Mayor Tony Yarber and at least two former officials in Mississippi’s capital city were identified Wednesday as potential witnesses.

Our reporting

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. Opening statements in her federal trial in Atlanta are expected to start on Thursday.