Jury returns Wednesday as Bickers awaits fate

Star witness Mitchell’s credibility at center of closing arguments

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Jurors started their deliberations Tuesday afternoon without reaching a verdict in the federal bribery trial of former Atlanta City Hall insider Pastor Mitzi Bickers.

The jury of six men and six women will reconvene Wednesday to continue the second day of deliberations. The jury has eight Black members and four whites.

Earlier Tuesday, the prosecution and the defense outlined their closing arguments on Day 9 of Bickers’ federal corruption trial.

Prosecutors alleged that Bickers lied in her city ethics disclosures to conceal some $2 million in bribes from contractors Elvin “E.R.” Mitchell Jr. and Charles P. Richards Jr. Bickers allegedly lied about her income in her federal tax returns, and structured bank transactions to avoid federal reporting requirements and evade detection.

And Bickers told Mitchell to lie to the FBI and take one for the team to throw investigators off her trail in 2015, Assistant U.S. Attorney Nathan Kitchens said.

“When you follow the money trail in this case, it cuts through the lies and the manipulation,” Kitchens said. “It all leads to one clear path, that the defendant Mitzi Bickers is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Prosecutors spent 90 minutes reinforcing connections made across eight days of testimony that painted Bickers as the mastermind who steered some $17 million in city business to Mitchell and Richards. The 12-count indictment alleges Bickers payoff was the bribes she received.

Bickers, who helped former Mayor Kasim Reed win the 2009 runoff for mayor, served as the city’s director of human services from 2010 to 2013. Prosecutors allege she used her connections and influence before and after she left City Hall, bribing other officials in the process.

Prosecutors laid out how Bickers, who earned $58,000 from her city salary, lived a luxurious lifestyle funded by ill-gotten cash.

In his closing, defense attorney Drew Findling said the government did not prove any connections between Bickers and business won by Mitchell and Richards. Bickers had no direct role in contracting, and Findling said the government presented no evidence of communications between Bickers and insiders at City Hall who allegedly helped the scheme.

Findling pounded Mitchell, the government’s star witness at trial, calling him a liar who sold out Richards and Bickers when he was ensnared by the government.

“Honestly, this guy is the dirt on the bottom of your shoes,” Findling said of Mitchell.

In 2006, Mitchell reached a civil settlement with the Fulton County Schools over alleged overbilling. Those alleged acts triggered a federal criminal investigation. But Mitchell was not charged in the matter.

Mitchell started working with the government as an informant in 2006. Prosecutors have said and Mitchell testified that cooperation ended before the time of the City Hall bribery scheme, but Findling has argued Mitchell’s work for the FBI lasted longer.

When the FBI confronted Mitchell in July 2015 with evidence of illegal acts, Findling said Mitchell’s acts presented a problem for the government.

“This is not the narrative the government needs,” Findling said. “Because if it’s him, it’s kind of them, because they enabled him.”

In his 90 minutes, Findling said the federal case crumbles because Mitchell is unreliable and the other charges are built on a shaky foundation.

“This case has been built by the government on the backs of liars, on the backs of cooperators and on the back of a man with a history of defrauding taxpayers,” Findling said.

Findling said prosecutors bought Mitchell’s story of a bribery scheme and ignored other explanations for payments to Bickers – namely that she performed legitimate work for the contractor after she left the city and that more than $1 million in payments from Mitchell during her time with the city was compensation for unpaid work for his company in the past.

But Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Davis said Bickers never reported this back pay.

“The simple reason is because it wasn’t back pay,” Davis said. “It was bribe pay.”

Bickers is the first person to stand trial in the City Hall corruption probe, which so far has netted seven guilty pleas and three other indictments.

Mitchell testified last week that his business had been battered by the Great Recession, forcing him to let go nearly all his staff. 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.

Mitchell teamed with Richards on a bid, and they were the highest bidders, but still got pieces of the work that eventually grew into the millions of dollars. Bickers also allegedly provided Mitchell and Richards with confidential information about emergency bridge repair needs.

In his testimony, Mitchell said he learned from Bickers she relied on a city insider to use her influence on contracts, including snow removal work in 2011.

Mitchell was confronted by the city over high charges during the 2011 winter storm, but he received his pay. After that storm, the city put in place an on-call emergency services contract with five vendors to provide storm response services in an emergency to lock in pre-approved prices. Mitchell was not one of those five vendors.

Still, in 2014, as winter weather barreled down on Atlanta, Mitchell testified that Bickers told him he could get more work, even though Mitchell said he didn’t have a salt spreader to his name.

Mitchell was paid more than $5.5 million, the bulk of snow removal work.

Davis told the jury the defense can batter Mitchell, but it can’t refute Richards’ testimony or bank records.

Davis said the defense called Mitchell “James Bond” as he taped a conversation with Richards.

“James Bond?” Davis said. “At best, on his best day, he looks like Austin Powers.”

The charges: Pastor Mitzi Bickers, a political consultant who helped Kasim Reed win his first run for mayor in 2009, faces a dozen felony counts in her federal trial. The counts are:

1) Conspiracy to commit bribery

2)Conspiracy to commit bribery


4-6) Money laundering

7-10) Wire fraud

11) Tampering with a witness or informant

12) Filing False Tax Returns