The federal investigation into corruption at Atlanta City Hall under the administration of former Mayor Kasim Reed continues despite disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic, U.S. Attorney Byung J. “BJay” Pak said Tuesday.
Now that grand juries have resumed their work, Pak said, “there are activities that are planned in the upcoming months.”
"During the time that the coronavirus has slowed down the court system, in terms of operations, investigations didn't stop," said Pak, who spoke to reporters at an online Atlanta Press Club Newsmakers gathering.
Pak said he did not intend to drag out the probe.
“We are moving with all deliberate speed and we expect things will come to a close soon,” he said.
The probe has been ongoing at least since 2015, or more than two years before Pak was appointed as U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia. Seven people so far have pleaded guilty to charges, Pak said. Two others have been indicted thus far, including a former executive at an engineering firm that performed work on airport and watershed contracts.
The biggest case by far, however, is now scheduled to go to trial in September when Pak’s office will attempt to prove that a mastermind behind some of the bribery schemes was Mitzi Bickers, a former city official and political operative who played a key role in Reed’s election.
The complex case against Bickers, a minister and well-connected political operative who worked at City Hall from 2010 to 2013, spans a dozen charges and involves allegations of pay-to-play contracting in Atlanta and Jackson, Miss.
In Atlanta, federal prosecutors allege Bickers parlayed her work helping get Reed elected in 2009 to land a city job. From her post as director of human services, prosecutors allege she positioned herself to influence members of Reed’s administration to steer city business to a pair of construction company CEOs, even though she had no direct role in contracting.
Reed has not been accused of any wrongdoing.
The CEOs, Elvin R. "E.R." Mitchell Jr. and Charles P. Richards Jr., have already pleaded guilty to conspiring to pay $2 million bribes to Bickers, who allegedly helped the contractors win some $17 million in snow removal and sidewalk contracts. The men have agreed to testify against Bickers, who has pleaded not guilty.
Fight over evidence
Recent court filings hint at potentially salacious evidence against Bickers, including allegations she used exotic dancers to entertain Jackson officials in an unsuccessful effort to steer contracts to her and her partners.
In one filing, lawyers for Bickers asked U.S. District Court Judge Steve Jones to stop the government from introducing evidence related to strippers, which they argue is “inflammatory and unduly prejudicial” against Bickers, who now works as a chaplain for the Clayton County Sheriff’s Office.
The defense wants the judge to quash evidence about her lavish personal spending as well as testimony casting doubt on the legitimacy of her church and companies, and to prevent the government from calling as witnesses Bickers' former romantic partners.
The defense also wants Jones to stop the government from making any reference to work Bickers did to help Reed win the Atlanta mayoral runoff in 2009 or Bickers’ history with Reed.
“Much of what is anticipated is unsubstantiated rumor, speculation and/or hearsay and is irrelevant to the charges in this indictment,” Bickers’ defense said in one filing. A message left last week with Bickers’ attorneys was not returned.
Prosecutors, on the other hand, said in court filings the evidence is central to proving Bickers’ alleged acts.
“Much of the evidence she seeks to exclude is directly related to, and forms the factual basis for, the crimes alleged in the indictment,” prosecutors said.
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment about the motions.
In his Atlanta Press Club comments, Pak declined to address evidence not already entered into the public record.
“If you look at the indictment, the accusations are pretty detailed,” Pak said. “On top of that, the great reporting done by the media have really connected dots. There is some evidence the court will be presented with and the jury will hear that the media does not know.”
Caren Morrison, a Georgia State University law professor and former federal prosecutor in New York, said that simply because something looks bad or might help prosecutors prove their case does not make the evidence “unfairly prejudicial.”
“You don’t get to edit your past just because it causes potential problems for you in a legal proceeding,” she said.
Reed denies involvement
In 2009, Bickers served as a get-out-the-vote guru and helped Reed defeat Mary Norwood in a hotly contested runoff.
Bickers joined the Reed administration, but left her job at City Hall in 2013 after a report by Channel 2 Action News showed she earned hundreds of thousands of dollars doing political work but failed to disclose the income in her city ethics disclosures.
Prosecutors allege Bickers used her influence to steer contracts long after she left.
In a recent court filing, prosecutors suggested Bickers helped bribe more than one Reed administration official, though none have been named.
“Bickers’ relationship with the Mayor after his successful campaign provided the political access she needed to bribe other City of Atlanta officials,” the filing said.
Prosecutors also allege Bickers personally induced Mitchell to provide tens of thousands of dollars to her to assist in Reed’s campaign.
Reed, through a spokeswoman, declined to answer questions.
“From the beginning of this investigation more than four years ago, I have made it clear that I have never accepted a bribe from Mitzi Bickers or anyone else,” Reed said in a statement. “The only truth that will be revealed during the course of Ms. Bickers’ trial is that my statement was factual.”
Ronald L. Carlson, a professor emeritus at the University of Georgia School of Law and an expert on federal rules of evidence, said the rules are generally ones of inclusion.
“It does not mean that everything comes in, but it means a lot comes in,” he said.
Carlson said he expects Jones to handle matters with great care. As it relates to Bickers’ relationship with Reed, Carlson said he expects prosecutors will have to walk a fine line, but they likely will be allowed to show jurors how Bickers might have had clout at City Hall.
“The court will be very careful to allow the case not to move forward with innuendo and speculation,” he said.
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 under former Mayor Kasim Reed. 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.
Mitzi Bickers’ trial
Mitzi Bickers, a political operative, pastor and former director of human services at Atlanta City Hall, faces 12 felony counts at a trial now scheduled for Sept. 1 in U.S. District Court in Atlanta. She declined a plea bargain and will be the first person to face trial in the Atlanta corruption investigation. The felony counts include conspiracy to commit bribery, money laundering, filing false tax returns and witness tampering. She’s also accused of bribing officials in Jackson, Miss., in an attempt to obtain government contracts there.