Bribery charges expose depth of corruption facing Atlanta’s new mayor

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms speaks during the March for our Lives event in Atlanta, Georgia, on Saturday, March 24, 2018. (REANN HUBER/REANN.HUBER@AJC.COM)

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms speaks during the March for our Lives event in Atlanta, Georgia, on Saturday, March 24, 2018. (REANN HUBER/REANN.HUBER@AJC.COM)

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has said the city won’t know how deeply the city’s procurement process has been exploited until federal prosecutors complete their bribery investigation at City Hall.

An indictment unsealed Thursday indicates Bottoms could be waiting a while.

The indictment against The Rev. Mitzi Bickers suggests the new mayor will have to tackle pervasive vulnerabilities in procurement and a culture of corruption.

“The ethics and culture of an organization start from the top,” U.S. Attorney Byung J. “BJay” Pak said Thursday. “You set the right tone, so when you have repeated instances of corruption, it’s time to look at that culture.”

Late in Bottoms’ campaign for the mayor’s seat last year, she pledged to root out corruption and reform ethics inside City Hall. With nearly the first 100 days behind her, Bottoms has consistently said that wrongdoing will not be tolerated in her administration. But it’s unclear what specific steps the new mayor has taken to fulfill her campaign promises.

A committee to review ethics and procurement policies has yet to offer reforms. A permanent replacement to Adam Smith, the city’s former procurement chief who pleaded guilty to taking nearly $40,000 in bribes, is being sought but has yet to be named.

“The leadership at the top has to set the tone for a strong ethics culture,” said Harvey Newman, professor emeritus of public policy at Georgia State University. “I don’t think we’ve had the emphasis recently … I think (Bottoms) needs to really move forward to let the public know this is high on her (list of) priorities.”

Bottoms declined repeated requests for interviews and instead provided written answers to eight questions submitted by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The statement said overhauling the procurement process remained a priority and that she would provide more details soon.

April 5, 2018 Atlanta - Rev. Mitzi Bickers and her attorney Richard Hendrix the Richard B. Russell Federal Building after her first appearance in federal court on Thursday, April 5, 2018. Rev. Mitzi Bickers made her first appearance in federal court Thursday to face charges that she took $2 million in bribes to steer city of Atlanta contracts to at least two contractors from 2010 to 2015. She was released on a $50,000 appearance bond. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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The 11-count indictment against Bickers — once one of the most powerful local political operatives — describes how a mid-level city manager with no official role in procurement allegedly managed to steer $17 million in city contracts to two city contractors in exchange for a staggering $2 million in bribes.

From 2010 to 2015, Bickers allegedly figured out how to exploit not only how Atlanta awards contracts during emergencies — when the city is most vulnerable to fraud because of a lack of competitive bidding — but also standard contracting processes involving months of internal vetting and numerous checks and balances.

And Bickers wasn't even a city employee for two of the five years that she allegedly wielded influence. Prosecutors say Bickers helped steer more than $5.5 million in emergency snow removal contracts to a company that didn't own a snow plow in 2014, a year after she left city employment.

The indictment alleges that almost as soon as Kasim Reed took office in January 2010, Bickers began accepting bribes from contractors Elvin “E.R.” Mitchell Jr. and Charles P. Richards Jr. in exchange for sensitive information about purchasing and to steer contracts. At the time, Bickers worked as human services director for Reed. The indictment alleges Bickers gave some of the bribe money to other public officials.

April 5, 2018 Atlanta - U.S. Attorney Byung J. “BJay” Pak speaks about bribery scandals at Atlanta City Hall during a press conference at the Richard B. Russell Federal Building on Thursday, April 5, 2018. Rev. Mitzi Bickers made her first appearance in federal court Thursday to face charges that she took $2 million in bribes to steer city of Atlanta contracts to at least two contractors from 2010 to 2015. She was released on a $50,000 appearance bond. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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Pak alleged in a press conference Thursday that Bickers aided Mitchell in winning the snow removal work in 2014 when neither he nor any of his companies were on the city’s pre-approved shortlist of emergency vendors.

“Just think about the dollar amounts involved in this case,” Pak said. “Seventeen million dollars was paid to these (two) contractors and multi-million dollars was paid to this one individual. That speaks volumes about what happened.”

It also indicates that Atlanta’s newly elected mayor faces formidable and complicated challenges in correcting what went wrong.

Bottoms’ 10-point plan

During her campaign, Bottoms developed a 10-point ethics plan that said her first act as mayor would be to appoint an independent auditor to perform a top-to-bottom review of the procurement process. She said that audit would "set the framework" for a complete procurement overhaul.

Bottoms has not appointed an independent auditor, but instead appears to be relying on the city’s internal auditor, which the mayor said completed a review in February. The audit, started before Bottoms’ took office, was limited to a review of airport contracts. But it found red flags indicating an elevated risk of fraud in some of the contracts reviewed.

Bottoms’ statement said that her administration added new reviews and documentation throughout the procurement process in response to the audit.

Her campaign pledges also included: having an independent review of contracts awarded to campaign contributors to make sure the awards were based on merit; appointing a chief compliance officer; and requiring all city officials to file five years of tax returns before elections.

The ethics proposal was a marked departure from her earlier statements about the bribery investigation, in which she asserted that "just a few bad apples" had caused the problems.

During her first 30 days in office, Bottoms convened a committee to review city ethics policies and the procurement code. It’s unclear how many meetings have been held.

Sara Henderson, executive director of watchdog group Common Cause Georgia, said Bottoms officials contacted Common Cause about joining the committee during the transition.

“We are now in April and we haven’t heard another word about it,” Henderson said.

Asked to identify any specific steps taken to implement her plans, Bottoms in a statement said: “Efforts to implement the ten-point plan are ongoing.”

In the absence of legislation from the administration aimed at addressing corruption, a couple of council members have started to address the issue on their own.

Council President Felicia Moore has authored legislation, introduced by Councilman Andre Dickens, that would create independent procurement review officers who would conduct spot checks on contracts above a certain amount.

The details are still being worked out, but part of the legislation seems fixed: the review officers would report to the city auditor to guard against any political influence.

Dickens said Bottoms’ administration has not shown any resistance to the proposal.

“They’ve said, ‘Let’s look at it together,” Dickens said. “They’ve never said no … They are more like, ‘We are working on some stuff. Just give us some time.’ I’m like, ‘Well this is the time. We’ll put it out there and we will work on it together.’”

Mayor Franklin tackled ethics early

In Atlanta, there is precedent for a mayor to enact sweeping ethics and purchasing reforms early in her administration.

Former Mayor Shirley Franklin campaigned on ethics reform in the waning days of Bill Campbell's administration. Campbell and a number of lieutenants and contractors were ultimately indicted on federal charges related to contracting fraud. Several went to prison, including Campbell.

Within about 100 days, the city adopted rigorous new ethics standards recommended by a panel Franklin had convened during her transition.

But the city’s ethics codes haven’t been thoroughly overhauled since 2002. Ethics were “largely not given priority” during the eight years of the Reed administration, said Newman, the GSU professor.

Atlanta Ethics Officer Jabu M. Sengova said there have been a number of amendments that have improved the ethics code over the past 16 years, and that her office has "a current level of funding that enables the Office to effectively carry out its critical function of instilling a culture of ethics in the City."

The office has six full-time positions and a budget of more than $600,000.

‘It’s a people problem’

For City Council member Howard Shook, revelations from the federal investigation about who else might be involved in taking bribes can’t arrive fast enough.

“I think it’s a people problem,” Shook said. “I have had the opportunity to discuss these kinds of issues with independent auditors, and they have all told me the same thing: ‘It doesn’t matter what is in your city code … If there’s collusion between the person who keeps the books and person who runs the cash register, company policy can say what it says. It’s only going to be of limited help.”

Shook said the Bickers’ indictment dealt with a former city employee. He’s more curious about current employees.

“I’m interested in finding out where this goes in terms of people who showed up at work today,” Shook said. “And they’re going to show up for work tomorrow.’”

Pak on Thursday said prosecutors had some knowledge of who else received money from Bickers. But he declined to say when they may be revealed.

“As you know,” Pak said, “when we have bank records, we have an idea where the money goes.”

The story so far

Previously: The city of Atlanta's former procurement chief, two contractors and a former low-level city employee have pleaded guilty to charges related to a bribery scheme at City Hall.

The latest: On Thursday, prosecutors announced an indictment against The Rev. Mitzi Bickers, a former human services director in the Kasim Reed administration, for taking $2 million in bribes to help contractors win city contracts. Bickers was arrested and released on a $50,000 bond.

What's next: Shandarrick Barnes, who worked for Bickers, will be sentenced Monday for trying to intimidate Elvin "E.R." Mitchell Jr., one of the two contractors who has pleaded guilty and begun serving prison time, by throwing a brick through the window of his home.