Jackson, Miss. — A former Jackson contracting official says she was interviewed by the FBI in November 2015 about alleged bid-steering in municipal contracts, including accusations of wrongdoing against former public works director Kishia Powell, who now serves as watershed commissioner in Atlanta.
Former Jackson Equal Business Opportunity Manager Stephanie Coleman and her lawyer told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News she was interviewed by the FBI months after she said she was fired by the city for blowing the whistle on contracting misconduct.
Coleman said the FBI also questioned her about Mitzi Bickers, an Atlanta political operative and former city employee who has emerged as a subject of the federal cash-for-contracts investigation in Atlanta that occurred from 2010 to 2015.
The FBI’s questions about Powell concerned what Coleman knew about allegations that Powell steered bids to supporters of Jackson Mayor Tony Yarber, Coleman said.
“I’m not saying that I heard that she was steering contracts, I’m saying I was in there when she steered contracts,” Coleman said of Powell. “I’m sitting there … and I’m hearing (her) say, ‘We will not work with this company, we will not do that. And I need you all to score these (bid) sheets again and we’re not leaving until we do.’”
Powell, through her attorney, has denied wrongdoing and she is not a defendant in Coleman’s lawsuit. Her lawyer said that Powell has not been interviewed by the FBI, and it’s unclear if the bureau’s examination of Jackson contracting issues remains active.
A spokesman for the FBI in Jackson said he could neither confirm nor deny an inquiry, citing agency policy, and the legal department for the city of Jackson said the city had not received any subpoenas or requests for interviews from federal authorities.
Coleman’s allegations add color to those that she made in a federal lawsuit early this month. They include a claim that Powell helped steer a bid on a major sewer contract toward a group that included Bickers, who worked on Yarber’s 2014 mayoral campaign.
Her allegations also raise questions about how Powell came to be Atlanta’s watershed director in June 2016, and what Mayor Kasim Reed knew about the claims of wrongdoing when he offered her the $185,000-a-year job.
While Coleman’s conversations with the FBI were not public knowledge, some of her bid-steering allegations were published online by the Clarion-Ledger newspaper in Jackson on April 15, 2016, the same month Powell’s attorney told the AJC that she began discussions with Atlanta human resources about the watershed position.
According to a copy of Powell’s personnel file, released by Atlanta City Hall on Thursday, the city’s human resources department formally offered her the watershed job in a letter dated May 20, 2016, the day before Reed announced the firing of Jo Ann Macrina, the previous watershed director, in press release.
Juan Thomas, Powell’s attorney, said Powell interviewed with senior Atlanta staff and Reed before resigning her position in Jackson and accepting the Atlanta job, which was publicly announced June 1.
Jenna Garland, a spokeswoman for Reed, said the city was not aware of the allegations in Jackson before hiring Powell.
“Mayor Reed reviewed resumes for multiple candidates for this position,” Garland said. “He had heard for several years very favorable recommendations for Kishia Powell and her abilities. Mayor Reed invited Ms. Powell in for an interview and she was ultimately offered the position.”
Powell’s employment offer was “contingent upon [Powell’s] successful completion of [a] background check,” including a review of her prior employment, education, references and a search for any criminal history, according to her personnel file.
A copy of Powell’s background check was not included in the documents the city released Thursday.
In a document titled “New Hire Employment Checklist,” the box for background check was not marked. But Powell’s employment package delivered to the Atlanta City Council June 20, 2016, included a notation from Human Resources Director Yvonne Yancy that Powell went through a background check and that she passed it.
An AJC request for a copy of the background check is pending.
In a press conference earlier this month, Reed said he hired Powell based upon the recommendation of two mayors and two engineers. Garland declined requests by the AJC to name any of those individuals.
Garland said Bickers was not one of the people Reed spoke to about Powell, and that Powell was previously a finalist for the job in 2014 when Reed picked Macrina. Thomas, Powell’s attorney, said Powell does not know Bickers personally and only met her once she started work as the public works director in Jackson.
The watershed department, the city’s second largest, is arguably one of the most important. The 1,600 employees oversee water and sewer services for the city and the department annually handles hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts.
At a news conference earlier this month, Reed said, “Kishia Powell has my confidence” and he praised her for doing “a phenomenal job.”
“You can basically make any claim that you want in a lawsuit in Mississippi,” Reed said. “So I don’t have any intention of throwing Kishia Powell under the bus.”
Bid sheets changed, Coleman alleges
After she lost her job in Jackson, Coleman found work as the city clerk in Moss Point, Miss., near the Gulf Coast city of Biloxi.
She sat down for a recorded interview with the AJC and Channel 2 last week with her attorney in Jackson.
Coleman told reporters that the FBI quizzed her closely about her interactions with Powell and Bickers.
“They asked about the connection of Kishia Powell and Mitzi (Bickers), they asked if I thought Kishia was trying to steer contracts,” she said.
Wilson Carroll, Coleman’s attorney, told the AJC and Channel 2 that he was made aware of an FBI inquiry months before his client’s November 2015 interview with federal agents. Coleman said she has not talked to the FBI since the interview.
In her lawsuit, Coleman contends that Powell attempted to steer a $15 million sludge hauling contract to a group that included Mayor Yarber’s campaign finance chairman.
Coleman said Powell was among a group of evaluators who pressured other members of a bid committee to pick a group politically tied to Yarber over a competing team. The second team’s bid was more than $1 million cheaper, and the group earned higher marks on evaluators’ initial scoring sheets, Coleman said.
But Powell had the evaluators redo their scores multiple times, Coleman said.
Later, when word surfaced in Jackson that scoring sheets allegedly had been changed, Coleman’s lawsuit said Yarber confronted her and told her to take the responsibility for changing scores “because she had nothing to lose.” Powell could lose her license as an engineer if it was learned she had altered the scores, Yarber told Coleman, according to the lawsuit.
Coleman said she told the mayor she didn’t change scores and wouldn’t accept the blame.
Carroll, Coleman’s attorney, said the matrix that was used to score the cost of both proposals was changed, which lessened an advantage the low-bidder had over the other group. Carroll said Powell had control over that aspect of the evaluation.
Questions about Bickers
Thomas, Powell’s attorney, denied anything improper. In a statement, he said a correction was made to the matrix formula by a consultant, but Powell did not order evaluators to change their scores to steer the contract.
The Jackson City Council ultimately decided not to go forward with the recommended bidder.
In her lawsuit, Coleman also alleged that Bickers, the Atlanta political operative, wanted to meet to discuss getting certification as a disadvantaged business to win city contracts. Bickers is not a defendant in the suit.
At a dinner meeting, the conversation quickly drifted to an alleged admission by Bickers that she wanted Coleman to help craft her applications to make them appear legitimate.
Coleman alleged Bickers said that Yarber promised her a piece of a substantial waterworks management contract for helping Yarber get elected.
“She basically told me that the mayor had promised her the … project,” Coleman told the AJC and Channel 2.
But Coleman said Bickers submitted documents for newly formed companies that didn’t meet city standards for disadvantaged certification. Coleman said she raised red flags with Jackson City Council about Bickers and alleged steering of the sewer contract. The project was eventually re-bid.
Coleman’s lawsuit against the city of Jackson and Yarber also cites sexual harassment and sexual discrimination in her firing. The city and Yarber have declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.