New bribery charge against key figure in Atlanta corruption probe

Rev. Mitzi Bickers, who served as Mayor Kasim Reed’s director of human services, arrives at federal court in Atlanta in August for a status hearing with her attorney, Drew Findling, in federal court for her case, which includes charges of conspiracy to commit bribery, money laundering, wire fraud, tampering with a witness or informant, and filing false tax returns. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

The federal corruption investigation of Atlanta City Hall has reached across state lines and into Jackson, Miss.

Federal prosecutors unsealed a new charge this week against Rev. Mitzi Bickers, the Atlanta preacher who was indicted in April on charges that alleged she helped contractors win millions of dollars in city of Atlanta business.

The updated indictment wedges in a new bribery charge — this one alleging Bickers tried in 2014 and 2015 to win contracts in Jackson by paying for parties, food, airline flights, hotels, chauffeured car services, entertainment, fundraisers and campaign services for newly elected Mayor Tony Yarber and other Jackson city officials.

Specifically, the updated indictment alleges Bickers  tried to win a contract for a convention center hotel project in Jackson, and part of a program management services contract for that city's Wastewater Department. She was unsuccessful in both attempts.

Yarber, who was defeated for re-election in 2017, is not named or charged in the indictment, but served as mayor during the time-frame of the new allegation.

“On or about May 2015, Bickers represented to a public employee that the Mayor promised she would receive a government contract with the City of Jackson and Bickers simply needed to ensure that the paperwork looked good enough to justify the award,” the indictment says.

Days later, Bickers became the registered agent for a newly formed company called Mississippi Developers, according to the indictment.

Bickers was a go-to political consultant who helped former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed win his first mayoral campaign. She then worked as his director of Human Services from 2010 to 2013.

Rows of boxes related to the federal 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.

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Connection to Atlanta

The new charge closely mirrors reporting by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News from February 2017, when reporters traveled to Jackson and reported on a lawsuit filed by Stephanie Coleman, the former Equal Business Opportunity Manager for that city.

Coleman’s lawsuit alleged Yarber’s administration attempted to steer contracts to Bickers and others. Coleman’s allegations involved another Atlanta city official — Kishia Powell, who was hired by Reed to run Atlanta’s Watershed department in 2016, after working for years as Jackson’s public works director.

Coleman told the AJC and Channel 2 in February of 2017 that Bickers approached her about how to make her documentation pass muster to win the watershed contract, saying Yarber had promised her city business.

Coleman also said that she had been interviewed by FBI agents, who questioned her about both Bickers and Powell.

“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.’”

Coleman settled her lawsuit with the city of Jackson last month for an undisclosed sum.

Powell has not been charged and is not named in the updated indictment. She has previously denied steering contracts in Jackson, and repeated that denial to the AJC Wednesday.

Stephanie Coleman, the former director of the equal business opportunity office in Jackson, Miss., spoke to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News in 2017 about her allegations of bid-steering in city of Jackson contracts. Coleman said Atlanta political operative Mitzi Bickers told her that former Jackson Mayor Tony Yarber had promised her a piece of a lucrative waterworks project and that she needed Coleman’s help to be certified as a minority-owned business. Coleman also alleges she witnessed the former Jackson Public Works Director Kishia Powell steer bids. Powell, who has denied the allegations, was hired as Atlanta watershed commissioner in 2016. J. SCOTT TRUBEY/STRUBEY@AJC.COM

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‘A pattern of behavior’

Caren Morrison, a Georgia State University law professor and former federal prosecutor in New York, said it is not unusual for prosecutors to add charges as new evidence comes to light in complicated criminal investigations.

Agents from the FBI, U.S. Attorney’s Office and the IRS have been investigating Atlanta City Hall corruption for more than three years, and have already secured five guilty pleas — including two high-ranking members of Reed’s administration, procurement chief Adam Smith and deputy chief of staff Katrina Taylor Parks.

Bickers has pleaded not guilty to the charges in the original indictment, and has said she plans to fight them at trial.

A message left Drew Findling, for one of Bickers’ attorneys, was not immediately returned.

At a hearing in August, Findling asked a judge for more time to review more than 1 million documents and some 40 audio recordings that are part of a mountain of evidence prosecutors have collected in the complex case.

The new charge could be seen as prosecutors attempting to squeeze Bickers even harder to become a cooperating witness. But Morrison said she wasn’t sure that tactic would be successful, given that Bickers has been resisting the government’s pressure for months.

The new charge “makes her look like an even bigger operator,” Morrison said. “It paints a picture of a person who has engaged in a pattern of behavior.”

The updated indictment also names Elvin "E.R." Mitchell, a contractor who was the first person charged with bribery in the Atlanta City Hall investigation. It says Mitchell funded many of the improper gifts to Yarber, and says the contractor and Bickers both sought work from Jackson's wastewater department.

Bickers is scheduled to appear for a second arraignment Nov. 5.

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