Key figure in Atlanta bribery probe pleads guilty

January 25, 2017, Atlanta, Georgia - Defendant Elvin “E.R.” Mitchell Jr. returns to his car after his hearing in Atlanta, Georgia, on Wednesday, January 25, 2017. (HENRY TAYLOR / HENRY.TAYLOR@AJC.COM)

January 25, 2017, Atlanta, Georgia - Defendant Elvin “E.R.” Mitchell Jr. returns to his car after his hearing in Atlanta, Georgia, on Wednesday, January 25, 2017. (HENRY TAYLOR / HENRY.TAYLOR@AJC.COM)

Federal prosecutors on Wednesday secured their first conviction in a city of Atlanta bribery scandal when Elvin "E.R." Mitchell Jr., the only suspect named so far in the case, pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge.

Mitchell, 63, admitted to conspiring to commit bribery in order to obtain city construction contracts, as well as conspiring to launder money, from 2010 to August 2015. He confessed to paying more than $1 million in that time to an unnamed person under the belief that the funds would be paid to one or more city officials with influence over the contracting process.

Mitchell was awarded contracts worth millions as part of the scheme, federal prosecutors said, adding that the defendant referred to the bribes as “upfront” money.

As part of his plea agreement, federal officials said, Mitchell agreed to cooperate with authorities and to testify in any future cases.

Mitchell faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison, a $500,000 fine, restitution and up to three years of supervised release. But the government will consider Mitchell’s cooperation in its probe when he faces sentencing. A sentencing hearing was scheduled for April 28.

Mitchell said little, other than to answer “yes sir” and “no sir” to questions from U.S. District Judge Steve Jones. After the half-hour hearing, Mitchell declined to comment, but his attorney spoke briefly with reporters and said Mitchell is cooperating.

“Mr. Mitchell made mistakes and he admitted to these mistakes,” defense attorney Craig Gillen said.

U.S. Attorney John A. Horn said bribes like those paid by Mitchell “destroy public confidence” in government.

“When taxpayer funds are used to fund expensive government construction projects, the public expects … that the process is fair,” Horn said. “When the process isn’t fair, it costs taxpayers more.”

The case has gripped City Hall since last week when Horn’s office announced charges against Mitchell and that he would plead guilty — a signal, legal experts said, that Mitchell would be a key witness in the investigation.

Last week, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News reported on a September 2015 incident in which someone attempted to intimidate Mitchell and keep him from talking to federal agents. A brick was thrown through a window in Mitchell's home and dead rats were left on his property. The brick had writing on it: "ER, keep your mouth shut!!! Shut up."

An arrest was made in that case last year.

Mitchell is the principal of E.R. Mitchell Company and a number of related businesses. The firm was founded by Mitchell’s late father in 1960.

The Mitchell companies are among the best-known and most respected minority-owned builders and contractors in the city. E.R. Mitchell Company and its subsidiaries have taken part in major government construction projects for the city, as well as school systems in DeKalb and Fulton counties, the fifth runway at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and the Georgia World Congress Center.

Mitchell also has been a supporter of a number of local and state politicians.

In 2009, he hosted a fundraiser at his office for Kasim Reed in his first run for Atlanta mayor. Mitchell was a co-chair of a 2011 event where he raised $10,000 for Reed.

Mitchell and his companies have contributed more than $7,000 to Reed’s mayoral and state Senate campaigns since 2006. Anne Torres, spokeswoman for Reed, described Mitchell as an acquaintance of the mayor.

Torres declined to comment on the guilty plea, citing the ongoing investigation. She said the city has been cooperating the government for some time.

“What I can reiterate is the following: The integrity of the City’s procurement processes is of utmost concern, and complete cooperation with this investigation is the topmost priority of the City of Atlanta,” she said.

Atlanta City Council members were careful on Wednesday not to speak directly about Mitchell’s guilty plea. Because the investigation is ongoing, the city’s law department advised them to avoid commenting specifically on Mitchell, multiple council members said.

What remains a concern, said Councilwoman Felicia Moore, is whether the corruption is widespread or limited to a few players. Until there is more clarity, City Hall will remain under a cloud.

“There are still question marks out there,” she said. “We still don’t know the scope of what occurred and how it occurred.”

The bribery scandal comes as a time when the council has been pushing legislation that would put city finances, contracts and other Atlanta business matters online for more transparency. Council President Ceasar Mitchell said the allegations against Mitchell could make that happen faster.

“In this moment in time, we need to scrutinize proposals that come before council in a heightened fashion,” he said. “We need to make city actions more transparent as close to real time as possible.”