Atlanta bribery scandal has echoes in another city hall

Rows of boxes related to the ongoing bribery scandal at City Hall involve Mitzi Bickers, a political operative and former appointee of Mayor Kasim Reed who is a key figure in allegations involving contracts in Jackson, Miss. CHRIS JOYNER / CJOYNER@AJC.COM

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Rows of boxes related to the ongoing bribery scandal at City Hall involve Mitzi Bickers, a political operative and former appointee of Mayor Kasim Reed who is a key figure in allegations involving contracts in Jackson, Miss. CHRIS JOYNER / CJOYNER@AJC.COM

The unfolding bid-rigging and bribery scandal at Atlanta City Hall has transfixed the city, with two city contractors charged with paying officials bribes for contracts.

But the news in Atlanta is echoing in another city hall two states away in Jackson, Miss., where Mayor Tony Yarber’s administration has struggled under allegations that his administration attempted to steer contracts to his supporters.

One of those supporters is Mitzi Bickers, an Atlanta pastor, politician, political consultant and businesswoman, who has emerged as an important link in the contracts-for-money investigation in Atlanta.

Bickers helped Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed win his job in 2009 and was rewarded with a post as his director of human services from 2010-2013.

She also was an executive in a construction company owned by Elvin "E.R." Mitchell. Mitchell pleaded guilty last month to a count of conspiracy to commit bribery and launder money. In addition, Bickers employed in her public relations firm Shandarrick L. Barnes, the man accused of trying to silence Mitchell by heaving a brick through his window with a subtle message scrawled on it: "ER, keep your mouth shut!!! Shut up."

Federal investigators are interested to know more. When Reed released 1.5 million pages of documents related to the city bribery investigation last week, literally hundreds of boxes were tagged as “Bickers related.”

‘A kingmaker’

Over in Mississippi, Bickers is a player in local and state politics.

"She's a kingmaker, that's what she is," Yarber recently told the Jackson Free Press, an alternative weekly.

Buckle up now. If you think Atlanta has a wild political culture, Jackson is a circus.

Yarber became mayor in 2014 in a special election required when the city’s last mayor, former Black Nationalist and attorney Chokwe Lumumba, died less than a year into his term from heart failure.

I say heart failure because that's what the coroner determined. Some local politicians suggested, without evidence, that it was murder because Jackson is the kind of place where a local politician might say that to nodding heads.

Bickers aided Yarber in his run for the city's top spot by contributing at least $14,000 to his campaign. And Mitchell, the Atlanta contractor at the center of our local scandal, gave Yarber $10,000.

But that’s not all. After Yarber’s victory, Bickers was allegedly involved in a fundraiser for the new mayor in New Orleans and hosted one at her Jonesboro home.

According to a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by Yarber’s former secretary, the New Orleans fundraiser ended at a strip club where “Bickers paid for everything.” The lawsuit also claims that “strippers wearing only body paint” greeted guests at the Jonesboro event.

Yarber, who like Bickers also is a pastor, has denied the claims of sexual harassment and filed a countersuit against his former secretary, but a second lawsuit filed by another former city employee offers more allegations. That suit, filed earlier this month by the city's former Equal Opportunity Business manager Stephanie Coleman, claims Bickers met with Coleman in 2015 to discuss city contracts.

Bickers “stated that the mayor wanted to express his gratitude for her service by allowing her to participate in a few upcoming major contracts,” Coleman said in her suit.

Bickers, the suit claims, was expecting a piece of a lucrative, federally mandated sewer system rebuild. “Ms. Bickers stated that the Mayor Yarber had decided that she would get the EPA Consent Decree Management Contract with a partner of her choosing,” the suit states.

Shortly after that alleged meeting, Bickers founded The Bickers Group in Mississippi. That company initially was a minority business partner in a bid package rejected by the City Council last summer, in part because of questions surrounding subcontractors and their connections to City Hall. Records show Bickers dissolved the company shortly after the vote.

Amazingly, Bickers is the minority partner in a $75 million convention hotel bid selected this week by the Jackson Redevelopment Authority. The Clarion-Ledger reports that the prime contractor has been unable to get in touch with Bickers lately and her company could be replaced with a new local partner.

Another Jackson link

There is another thread connecting Reed’s administration with the political tire fire 350 miles to our west: Kishia Powell.

Before Reed appointed Powell commissioner of Atlanta Watershed Management Department last year, she was public works director in Jackson and was accused of steering contracts toward Yarber’s political allies.

Coleman’s lawsuit — the one that had Bickers looking for an inside deal on Jackson city contracts — claims Powell was among those on a city contracts evaluation committee that tried to steer the committee toward a sewer rebuild bid that included Bickers.

The lawsuit claims Powell also backed a local contractor’s bid on a $15 million waste hauling contract. That contractor, Jackson businessman Socrates Garrett, was one of Yarber’s largest political contributors.

A shorthanded City Council voted 3-1 not to award the contract to the group that included Garrett. In an interview earlier this month with the weekly Jackson Free Press, Yarber said the council voted down the contract because of Garrett’s association with his campaign.

“It was plain and simple that it was rejected because he supported me. That’s all that was,” he told the paper.

Garrett, who has worked as a city contractor under the last several mayors, cried foul too. The city's troubled racial history is subtext for a lot of its politics, and in comments last year to The Clarion-Ledger, Garrett claimed a double standard was being applied.

“We (African Americans) finally get in a position where our business community is able to make some contributions to candidates of their choice, a process that’s been going on 200 years in the majority community,” he said. “When we start making campaign contributions, you guys want to paint it as something wrong and evil and some new form of bribery.”

Powell has denied steering contracts toward Yarber’s allies. Back in Atlanta, Reed has expressed his confidence in Powell and through her attorney Powell has denied the claims in Coleman’s lawsuit.

If you have kept this all straight in your head, congratulations.

It’s the kind of network that movies always illustrate by showing the hero (or perhaps the crazy person) pinning note cards and newspaper clippings to the wall and connecting them with strings in a wild patchwork. If you try that at home, you’ll find those strings keep linking the suspicions, personalities and allegations troubling Jackson’s City Hall with the guilty pleadings, subpoenas and documents overwhelming Atlanta.

Most troubling is the near certainty that we are still in the early chapters of this drama.

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