Feds ready case against Mitzi Bickers in Atlanta bribery scandal

Personal bank statements. Financial records from about a dozen companies. Copies of checks and deposits from her church.

A court filing shows federal prosecutors plan to present these and a mountain of other records in the April 13 trial of Mitzi Bickers, a political operative, pastor and the first person slated to face a jury in the corruption investigation of Atlanta City Hall.

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 Bickers accepted more than $2 million in bribes from 2010 to 2014 to help steer $17 million in city work to two construction contractors who have already pleaded guilty.

Though Bickers had no formal role in city purchasing, prosecutors allege Bickers used her influence to steer contracts — including bribing at least one other unnamed city official.

Bickers faces 12 felony counts, including 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.

A message left with Bickers’ attorneys was not immediately returned. The U.S. Attorney’s Office did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Caren Morrison, a Georgia State University law professor and a former federal prosecutor in New York, said the prosecutors’ filings offer a preview of the case.

Prosecutors allege Bickers spent lavishly, including buying a $775,000 lakefront home in Jonesboro, as well as on cars, jet skis, travel and luxury goods.

In one motion, a routine filing to admit business records, prosecutors identified potential evidence including financial records from Bickers and her partner, her mother and a pair of political consulting businesses allegedly used to direct proceeds of the bribery scheme.

Prosecutors list financial records related to the companies of Elvin R. "E.R." Mitchell Jr. and Charles P. Richards Jr., the two contractors who previously pleaded guilty to conspiring to pay bribes to win snow removal and sidewalk contracts.

Also listed is the church where Bickers serves as pastor, Emmanuel Baptist, in southeast Atlanta, and Derrty South Entertainment, a defunct company related to Bickers that once owned a nightclub in Texas.

“Juries love records,” Morrison said. She said bank records in particular help prosecutors illustrate complicated financial crimes.

“They kind of feel like there is no spinning that,” Morrison said. “The money was paid or it wasn’t. It appeared in the bank account or it didn’t.”

Motions to exclude

Prosecutors have also asked U.S. District Court Judge Steve Jones to exclude some information from the jury, including a polygraph Bickers took prior to indictment.

They also want the judge to prevent the defense from using as evidence past litigation against Mitchell and apparent efforts by federal authorities to recruit Mitchell as a confidential informant.

Mitchell was accused nearly 15 years ago of defrauding Fulton County Schools and settled an overbilling case for $1.7 million. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution previously reported on an unsigned non-prosecution agreement found in Mitchell's home dated in 2006, in which authorities sought his cooperation.

Morrison said it could be a high bar to get a judge to block that information from a jury when Mitchell’s credibility is a key factor.

“You can see why the defense would want it,” she said. “It might make [Mitchell] look like he was shady.”’

Allegations in Mississippi

Bickers is the daughter of the Rev. Benjamin Weldon Bickers, a boyhood friend of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. After her father died, Bickers replaced him in the pulpit at Emmanuel Baptist.

She won a seat on the Atlanta Board of Education in the early 1990s at age 27 and became a political consultant after a failed run for Fulton County Commission chair.

Bickers has been under scrutiny dating to at least 2015. She was the subject of subpoenas sent to City Hall and to Clayton County, where she currently works as a chaplain under Sheriff Victor Hill.

A grand jury first indicted Bickers on 11 counts in late March 2018. A "superseding" indictment followed that October, alleging Bickers also bribed public officials in Jackson, Miss., in an unsuccessful attempt to win portions of a convention center hotel project and a waste water program management contract.

Prosecutors allege Bickers paid for air fare, hotels, entertainment, food and car services for then-Jackson Mayor Tony Yarber and other public officials.

Prosecutors indicated in a court filing they plan to present financial records for Yarber, including a home mortgage. In May 2016, the Clarion Ledger in Jackson reported Yarber’s mortgage, which had been in foreclosure, was essentially forgiven by Wells Fargo soon after his election.

In a motion filed March 4, prosecutors alleged Bickers held parties for Yarber and others from Jackson “that featured strippers, cigars, alcohol, and food in an attempt to influence them and gain their favor in order to obtain city contracts.”

Separate court filings suggest prosecutors may call two former city of Jackson officials who filed and settled wrongful termination cases against that city.

Stephanie Coleman, a whistleblower and the city of Jackson's former equal business opportunity manager, told the AJC in February 2017 that she interviewed with the FBI about attempts to steer bids in Jackson.

Coleman alleged Kishia Powell, then-Jackson’s head of public works and now commissioner of watershed management in Atlanta, tried to influence the selection process for the sewer program to a group including Bickers and another contract to a separate group tied to Yarber.

Powell, who did not respond to an email seeking comment, has denied wrongdoing.

The second former Jackson official is Kimberly Bracey, who was an aide to Yarber, who alleged she twice accompanied Yarber to Atlanta for fundraising trips. Bracey's lawsuit alleged Bickers had parties at her home featuring strippers and on one occasion allegedly arranged for a sexual encounter between a woman and the former Jackson mayor.

The story so far

January/February 2017: Elvin R. "E.R." Mitchell Jr. pleads guilty to conspiring to pay more than $1 million in bribes to an unnamed person to win city contracts. A second contractor, Charles P. Richards Jr., also pleads guilty in the scheme. Reporting by the AJC and Channel 2 linked former city official and political operative Mitzi Bickers to the contractors and to an incident in which an employee of Bickers admitted to throwing a brick through Mitchell's window warning him to "shut up."

April 2018: Prosecutors unseal in indictment reached the previous month charging Bickers with conspiracy to commit bribery and other charges. She pleads not guilty at a hearing.

October 2018: A new or "superseding" indictment adds a bribery charge against Bickers alleging she tried to influence officials in Jackson, Miss., in order to win contracts there.

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 scheduled April 13 in U.S. District Court in Atlanta. She’s the first person to face trial in the Atlanta corruption investigation. Six people have pleaded guilty so far, including three city officials and two contractors.