Key Reed operative early focus of Atlanta bribery probe

Mitzi Bickers giving a sermon recently in her church, Emmanuel Baptist Church in Atlanta. Documents released by the city of Atlanta Thursday confirm Bickers is part of the federal bribery investigation at City Hall. DAN KLEPAL/DAN.KLEPAL@AJC.COM

Mitzi Bickers giving a sermon recently in her church, Emmanuel Baptist Church in Atlanta. Documents released by the city of Atlanta Thursday confirm Bickers is part of the federal bribery investigation at City Hall. DAN KLEPAL/DAN.KLEPAL@AJC.COM

The political consultant who played an instrumental role in putting Kasim Reed’s 2009 mayoral campaign over the top is a central figure in the on-going federal investigation into bribery at Atlanta City Hall, according to documents made public Thursday.

The Rev. Mitzi Bickers is named in an Aug. 19 federal subpoena served to the Atlanta City Attorney’s Office asking for documents related to her time working at City Hall and for work she performed in the private sector.

Bickers worked as Reed’s director of human services from 2010 to 2013, after playing a key get-out-the-vote role in his razor-thin victory nearly eight years ago over Mary Norwood.

Bickers has not returned repeated messages from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News seeking comment. She walked past reporters without comment Jan. 29, after giving a sermon at her church, Emmanuel Baptist in southwest Atlanta.

The seven-page subpoena was among 1.4 million pages of documents the Reed administration released Thursday. Reed said the city had previously turned over all of those documents to federal investigators.

There were at least 310 filing boxes stuffed full of information about Bickers, her companies, and companies for which she consulted.

The timing of the subpoena suggests that investigators were interested in Bickers before they began looking at the two Atlanta contractors who have already been named in the investigation.

Three months after the subpoena asking for Bickers’ information, federal investigators served the city with another subpoena asking for information about contractors Elvin “E.R.” Mitchell Jr. and Charles P. Richards Jr.

Mitchell pleaded guilty in federal court to conspiracy to commit bribery and launder money Jan. 25, and is expected to cooperate with the on-going investigation and testify in any subsequent trials. He is accused of giving more than $1 million in bribes.

Richards was charged Wednesday with conspiracy to commit bribery and is expected to plead guilty Feb. 16. Prosecutors say he paid more than $185,000 in bribes.

Both men have admitted to providing the bribes to an unnamed third person, under the belief that portions of the money would be shared with city officials who have influence over contract awards.

No city officials have been named in the probe, and Reed said during a Thursday press conference that he does not know who is the target of the investigation.

The mayor also said he has not been interviewed by federal investigators and has not hired a criminal defense attorney.

“Regarding Ms. Bickers tenure … she worked on my campaign and helped get me elected mayor,” Reed said at Thursday’s press conference before the documents were released. “That’s true and well known.

“She was given a job between 2010 and 2013 in the office of human services, that’s not an operational department in the city of Atlanta. I thought her background as a pastor made it an appropriate position for her.”

Bickers a political consulting star

Bickers may not be well-known to the public now, but she has been a star to local and state politicians for several years, and served for 10 years on the Atlanta Board of Education.

A Henry County resident, Bickers’ consulting team primarily worked on Reed’s behalf in southwest Atlanta with sound trucks, robocalls and door-to-door canvassers, she told the AJC at the time. She acknowledged higher turnout in southwest Atlanta helped Reed defeat Norwood: “The hardest vote to turn out is generally the black vote.”

Bickers has worked throughout the region, for a range of generally Democratic Party politicians from Roy Barnes’ 2010 gubernatorial campaign, to Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill’s 2012 win, and Fulton County Superior Court Judge Craig Schwall’s 2014 race, according to state political disclosures.

She is currently paid $37,708 a year as a corrections officer for the Clayton County Sheriff’s Office. It is believed Bickers works as a chaplain at the jail. But Senior Chaplain Stan Owen declined to comment when asked if Bickers worked in his chaplaincy program, which ministers to both corrections officers and inmates.

In 2014, Bickers crossed the state line and was paid tens of thousands of dollars to help Republican Thad Cochran get re-elected in a bitter U.S. Senate race in Mississippi, according to campaign disclosure statements.

Also in 2014, Bickers helped get Tony Yarber elected as mayor of Jackson, Miss.

Since then, she has become a controversial figure in Mississippi as well.

Bickers’ company, The Bickers Group, was listed as a minority partner with a company bidding for a multi-million dollar annual contract to manage Jackson’s $400 million, federally-mandated sewer upgrade.

Neither Bickers nor Powell are named as defendants in the Jackson lawsuit, which involves allegations of an improper firing of a former Jackson official.

Powell’s attorney, Juan Thomas, denied the allegations.

Retired from city after disclosure controversy

Bickers was paid $62,500 a year in Reed’s administration, until she retired suddenly after a controversy involving her failure to report outside income.

Documents released Thursday show Bickers took a two-month leave of absence without pay in 2012, at a time when her political consulting company, Pirouette Companies, was performing consulting work.

Upon returning, there was an issue with Bickers’ personal disclosure form filed with the city. She failed to report personal income from Pirouette, and had to file an amendment.

Bickers wrote in a letter explaining the omissions that she only became aware of the requirement after “media inquiries and political attacks regarding this matter.”

She retired from the city a few months later, in May 2013.

The AJC and Channel 2 had previously identified Bickers as a person who had been an executive in Mitchell's construction company.

The AJC and Channel 2 investigation also found that Bickers’ communications company employed as its chief financial officer Shandarrick L. Barnes, a felon who was arrested for leaving dead rats on Mitchell’s property and throwing a brick through his window with the words: “ER, keep your mouth shut!!! Shut Up.”

Bickers has not returned repeated messages left by the AJC and Channel 2. But during her Jan. 29 service, the weekend after the AJC published its report, she gave a sermon that dealt with the idea that people are blessed even when they go through hard times.

“I am grateful to you and grateful to the Lord for just your staying power and I praise God that you have always been supportive when I have been under political attack,” she said.