Rows of boxes related to the ongoing bribery scandal at City Hall involve Mitzi Bickers, a political operative and former appointee of Mayor Kasim Reed who is a key figure in allegations involving contracts in Jackson, Miss. CHRIS JOYNER / CJOYNER@AJC.COM
City officials said most of the rest concern two construction contractors, Elvin “E.R.” Mitchell and Charles P. Richards Jr., who recently pleaded guilty to federal bribery charges. Between them, they paid at least $1.2 million to obtain city work. Authorities have not publicly identified the recipients of those payoffs.
Bickers once worked for Mitchell, and she has employed another man who is accused of trying to silence him. Shandarrick L. Barnes, who was chief financial officer of Bickers’ consulting firm, faces charges for throwing a brick through Mitchell’s window and placing dead rats around his house.
How Bickers fits into the bribery case is not clear. But her association, even if by implication, seems to have paused a political career that dates to 1993, when, at age 27, she won election to the Atlanta Board of Education. Candidates in this year's Atlanta mayoral campaign apparently have distanced themselves from her. Meanwhile, Bickers' partner in a Mississippi development deal said last week he could no longer get in touch with her and was prepared to replace her.
Politicians and others who have worked with – and against – Bickers say she is a talented political operative, one who modernized many campaigns.
"She is a pillar in the district I represent," said state Rep. Keisha Waites (D-Atlanta), who in 2012 sponsored a legislative resolution honoring Bickers. "She's been around forever in the neighborhood. People know and love and trust her."
Not everyone. Shelitha Robertson, an Atlanta lawyer, paid Bickers $61,100 to work on her judicial campaign in 2010. Robertson lost. When she ran for the state legislature in 2015, Bickers was on the other side, advising an opponent who launched attacks that Robertson said were overly harsh and untrue.
"It's not a secret – anyone in that arena knows her and her groupies are the driving forces behind the negative stuff in campaigns," Robertson said. "They can't win without tearing somebody else down."
But Robinson added: “I don’t want to participate in taking her down. She’s going to get what’s coming to her, anyway.”
Bickers, 50, has not been charged with any wrongdoing. She has not responded to repeated interview requests in person, by telephone and by email. At her church, she smiled at reporters after Sunday services but declined to answer questions.
The silence only heightens the mysteries:
Why did investigators focus on Bickers even though she never had the authority to award city contracts? What is her relationship with Barnes? And, perhaps most intriguing, why did Bickers put her home up as collateral last fall for a large bail bond for an unidentified criminal defendant?
Mitzi Bickers was born into a world where politics and religion readily mixed.
Her father, the Rev. Benjamin Weldon Bickers, was a boyhood friend of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In 1958, Bickers founded Emmanuel Baptist Church at the edge of the Carver Homes public housing project in southeast Atlanta. For decades, Democratic politicians made a pilgrimage to seek his blessing, and he once joked that only candidates who visited his church seemed to win statewide elections.
Mitzi was an only child, raised in the church to one day join her father in the pulpit. After she graduated from Spelman College, she became an associate minister at Emmanuel. Her father died of cancer in 1998, and she took over the church leadership.
By then, she had been on the Atlanta school board for more than four years. It was a turbulent time, as board members engaged in public arguments and superintendents cycled through the district at an alarming rate. She quit in 2003 to run for chairman of the Fulton County Commission.
That campaign changed her life: by ending her career as an elected official, and by inadvertently outing her as gay.
In September 2003, about six weeks before the election, Bickers gave a speech to the Georgia Stonewall Democrats, a gay-oriented political organization.
"It's tough for a black woman to run as a gay candidate," she said, "particularly for a black female who's a preacher at a Southern Baptist church."
Mitzi Bickers was first elected to the Atlanta School Board at age 27.
Bickers apparently did not know that a reporter for the Southern Voice, a weekly newspaper that covered the gay community, was present. Two days later, after seeing her remarks in print, Bickers said she had been speaking generally, not about her own orientation. But soon after the episode, acquaintances said, she publicly acknowledged she is lesbian.
Bickers finished third in a four-candidate race. The defeat opened a difficult period in which Bickers filed for protection from her creditors in U.S. Bankruptcy Court. She had launched her political consulting business, but she ended up going to work as a manager at E.R. Mitchell’s construction company.
In the mid-2000s, according to public records, Bickers helped start several other companies in an odd mix of industries in which she seemed to have no experience.
Derrty South Entertainment operated a nightclub in McAllen, Texas, near the border with Mexico. South West Financial was located in the same building as Club Derrty South. The Greenwood Group of South Texas was headquartered in a house Bickers bought near McAllen. South City Groundworks was a trucking company in Slidell, Louisiana, outside New Orleans.
Most of the companies dissolved within months, records show. One lender foreclosed on the house listed as the Greenwood Group’s offices. Another took over the Club Derrty South Building.
Efforts to reach Bickers’ associates in these firms were unsuccessful. One of them was Shandarrick Barnes. Corporate records in Texas list him as a director of two of Bickers’ companies, including Derrty South.
Back in Atlanta, Bickers’ political consulting firm prospered.
She stood out from her peers by encouraging clients to use more sophisticated techniques to reach voters – to go beyond yard signs and campaign flyers. She analyzed voter files to craft messages targeted at specific voters, an approach that helped elect several state legislators and city council members. The success brought more business, even from former adversaries.
On Election Day 2009, no candidate for Atlanta mayor captured more than half the votes. Kasim Reed finished second, 10 percentage points behind Mary Norwood. To win a runoff election, Reed enlisted Bickers to boost voter turnout.
By all accounts, Reed and Bickers had never been friendly. Their relationship had been especially contentious since he had supported one of her opponents for commission chairman in 2003. But Bickers took the job and devised a strategy to find voters who weren’t inclined to cast ballots.
The day of the runoff election, Bickers dispatched operatives to bus stops and train stations and street corners – anywhere they could find registered voters willing to accept a ride to polling places. Reed won by 714 votes, less than 1 percentage point. Bickers’ work seemed to have made the difference.
But more than seven years later, at a press conference in City Hall this month, Reed spoke of Bickers in a dispassionate tone.
“She worked on my political campaign and helped me get elected mayor,” he said. “She was given a job.”
Her position of human services director was “not an operational job,” he said, but involved working with people in the community.
“I thought her background as a pastor made that an appropriate position for her,” Reed said. “And that’s all I have to say about Ms. Bickers.”
In financial disclosure filings with the city’s ethics office, Bickers said she reported directly to the mayor. But Reed and his aides say she worked for his chief of staff, two rungs down the organizational ladder. They say she had no role in choosing contractors for city work.
“She was very self-promoting,” said Jenna Garland, Reed’s press secretary.
Bickers’ job with the city paid $62,500 a year – a small part of her actual earnings while working for the government.
Campaign finance records show that Bickers and companies with which she is affiliated took in $875,827 from 21 candidates and political committees between February 2010 and May 2013. She performed some of that work during an unpaid, 76-day leave of absence from her city job in 2012. It is not clear from the records exactly how much of the money went directly to Bickers.
In 2013, Channel 2 Action News reported that Bickers had failed to disclose outside income to the city ethics office, violating city rules. Bickers amended her financial disclosure statement, but she said in a letter to the ethics office that she did so only after "media inquiries and political attacks."
She resigned later in 2013.
While working for the city, she bought a 5,200-square-foot house on Lake Spivey in Henry County. She made a down payment of $524,000 in June 2011, according to property records. She paid the other $251,000 less than a year later.
Bickers’ success in Atlanta campaigns opened doors in another Southern capital: Jackson, Mississippi. There, she would try to parlay her political work into lucrative government contracts.
Tony Yarber, himself a pastor and politician, hired Bickers in 2014 to lead voter-turnout efforts in his mayoral campaign in Jackson. He and Bickers apparently remained close after his victory.
A few weeks after the election, Bickers played host at a dinner honoring Yarber in New Orleans, according to a federal lawsuit filed by Yarber’s former administrative assistant, Kimberly Bracey, who claims he sexually harassed her.
After that dinner, Bracey’s lawsuit alleges, Bickers picked up the tab for Yarber and his aides at a strip club, including a private encounter between the mayor and a stripper.
Twice, Bracey accompanied Yarber to Atlanta for fundraising events that Bickers organized. In August 2014, her suit says, Yarber’s group took a boat ride to Bickers’ house on Lake Spivey, expecting dinner. Instead, the suit alleges, they were greeted at the door by strippers wearing nothing but body paint.
At the second fundraiser the following month, the suit claims, Bickers brought the strippers back to her house and arranged for a woman to have sex with Yarber.
The mayor has denied the allegations. Bracey’s lawyer declined to comment.
About the same time, Bickers incorporated a company called Mississippi Developers, and she began seeking city contracts in Jackson.
In another federal lawsuit against Yarber, Stephanie Coleman, who managed Jackson's equal business opportunity office, alleged Bickers tried to inappropriately influence bidding on a $400 million upgrade to the city's water and sewer systems.
In the lawsuit and in an interview last week, Coleman said Bickers first came to her office to ask about getting certified as a minority-owned business to take part in city contracts. A few days later, Bickers surprised Coleman with an invitation to a downtown Jackson restaurant.
Over dinner, according to Coleman, Bickers described herself as a “major” donor and “close friend” of Yarber’s. Then she brought up a management contract for the water and sewer project.
“She just wanted me to know that the mayor has already said we’re going to get this contract,” Coleman said last week. Bickers also asked for Coleman’s help in making her minority-business application appear legitimate, Coleman said. She quoted Bickers as saying, “You just need to tell us how to fix it.”
Yarber has also denied Coleman’s allegations.
Bickers’ company did join a team that bid on the management contract, although the bid was eventually rejected. Now she is a minority partner in a group seeking to develop a $75.5 million hotel next to Jackson’s convention center.
"She is a very well-connected woman," Yarber said in an interview with the Jackson Free Press, a weekly newspaper, last month. "She's a kingmaker, that's what she is, and she is the kind of person that understands her roles in different spaces."
On Aug. 19, federal investigators delivered a subpoena to Atlanta City Hall, demanding all documents related to two people: Bickers and her friend Keyla Jackson. It was the first indication that authorities were looking into possible corruption in Reed’s administration.
In his news conference this month, Reed would not say whether authorities have identified Bickers as a target of the investigation. No public records except the subpoena connect her to the case.
But documents filed in the Henry County courthouse add a puzzling element to the story. On Oct. 24, the records show, Bickers used $88,701 in her home’s equity to secure a bond posted by Anytime Bail Bonding Inc.
Jail records do not indicate Bickers herself has been arrested in the past year, and federal officials said they have not taken her into custody. The bond could be unrelated to the federal investigation.
In recent weeks, Bickers has kept a low profile, except at her church.
Last Sunday, dressed in black pants, a black jacket and a purple shirt with a white clerical collar, Bickers preached to a crowd of about 60. Her sermon recalled the Exodus story of Moses leading the Israelites out of their bondage in Egypt, parting the Red Sea to elude Pharaoh’s army.
Her voice rose and a drummer slowly brought his cymbals to a shimmering crescendo as she spoke of how the Israelites praised God when they reached the shore.
“The water started coming together again,” she shouted. “Guess who’s in the middle? Pharaoh and his army. …
“When you begin to praise God, what happens is it will drown your enemies,” she said. “It will cause your enemies to drown. And not only your enemies, their whole army will drown in the Red Sea.”