A federal lawsuit in Jackson, Miss., alleges that one current and one former member of Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s administration were involved in bid-rigging in that city, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has learned.
Former Atlanta Director of Human Services Mitzi Bickers, who emerged Thursday as a named subject of a growing federal investigation into bribes related to Atlanta city contracts, is accused of being involved in a scheme where contracts were steered to supporters of Jackson Mayor Tony Yarber. Bickers played a key role in the election of Mayor Kasim Reed in 2009 and worked for the city of Atlanta from 2010 to 2013 as human relations director following his election.
Also identified in the complaint is Atlanta Watershed Commissioner Kishia Powell, who the lawsuit contends steered bids to donors of Yarber when she was Jackson’s public works director in 2015. One of the favored groups Powell steered a bid to included Bickers as a partner, according to the lawsuit.
Reed hired Powell away from Jackson in mid-2016 to come to Atlanta, where she took charge of an agency with more than 1,100 employees and an annual budget of $187 million.
In remarks to reporters Thursday, Reed downplayed Bickers’ role in his administration and said Powell “has done an amazing job for the city.”
Reed said Bickers’ former role in human services was not in an operational area of the city.
“I thought her background as a pastor made it an appropriate position for her,” Reed said.
As for Powell, Reed said, “All of this worries me, but Kishia Powell has my confidence.”
Reed said he hired Powell because of her reputation in both Jackson and her time in the private sector, and not upon the recommendation of Bickers.
“I think if you talk to folks since she has been at the city of Atlanta, she has done a phenomenal job, and I’m not going to have the job that she’s been doing for me gutted by a lawsuit,” Reed said. “In a lawsuit you can basically make any claim that you want in a lawsuit in Mississippi. So I don’t have any intention of throwing Kishia Powell under the bus.”
Powell and Bickers are not listed as defendants in the Mississippi case. The litigation is civil and neither Powell nor Bickers have been charged with any crimes.
Powell’s attorney, Juan R. Thomas, denied Thursday that she ever steered contracts.
“Ms. Powell has always endeavored to conducted herself with the highest degree of integrity and professionalism,” he said.
Bickers has not responded to repeated requests for an interview.
Through a spokeswoman, Mayor Yarber declined comment, citing the pending litigation.
Bickers and Mitchell ties in Jackson
The Mississippi lawsuit comes as Atlanta City Hall has been gripped by a federal investigation into bribes paid for government contracts. Bickers used to work for and is a business associate of Elvin “E.R.” Mitchell Jr., the Atlanta contractor who pleaded guilty last month to conspiracy to pay bribes to Atlanta officials in exchange for contracts.
On Wednesday, a second contractor, Charles P. Richards Jr., was charged in the case.
Bickers also once employed a man who admitted to federal authorities to throwing a brick through a window in Mitchell’s home and leaving dead rats on Mitchell’s property in an apparent attempt to keep the businessman from talking to investigators.
The AJC learned Thursday that federal prosecutors subpoenaed records last year from the city of Atlanta related to Bickers and Keyla Jackson, who corporations records show was a partner with Bickers in a Jackson-based development firm.
Mitchell and Bickers have a number of ties to one another and were both major political contributors to Mayor Yarber. One of Mitchell’s companies, E.R. Mitchell Construction, donated $10,000 towards that campaign, while Bickers contributed $15,000 to the Yarber campaign, according to Mississippi campaign finance data.
Two of Mitchell’s companies and at least one tied to Bickers were qualified as minority-owned and disadvantaged companies with the city of Jackson in 2015, according to city documents.
In Jackson, Bickers was also 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.
‘Keep your mouth shut’
The Mississippi bid-rigging allegations are contained in a suit filed this month in U.S. District Court in Jackson by former Jackson Equal Business Opportunity Manager Stephanie Coleman.
In her lawsuit, Coleman alleges Yarber and the city of Jackson “unlawfully retaliated” against her for refusing to take part in illegal acts. Coleman also alleges sexual harassment and sexual discrimination by officials in the Yarber administration.
Coleman was appointed by Yarber in January 2015 to help small businesses obtain minority and disadvantage status to help win city contracts.
Coleman was fired later that year, she alleges, after she objected to Yarber about bidders being improperly favored in the bid evaluation process. Coleman said Yarber told her “it was one thing for you to raise your concerns and objection during the evaluation meetings, but public discussion is something that will not be tolerated.”
Yarber also told Coleman that she “needed to keep your mouth shut,” according to the complaint.
On one bid evaluation, Coleman alleges Powell and other committee members made “disparaging statements” about the cheaper bidder to discredit the proposal. Later, when media reports in Jackson uncovered that scoring sheets were changed, Coleman alleges Yarber confronted her and told her to say she changed scores “because she had nothing to lose.” Powell could lose her license as an engineer if it was learned she had altered the scores, Yarbor told Coleman, according to the lawsuit.
Coleman said she refused, the lawsuit said.
Bickers wanted contracts, lawsuit alleges
Coleman claims that she met Bickers in May 2015 at Bickers’ request. At their meeting, Bickers told Coleman she was a major donor and friend of Yarber’s, and that Yarber wanted to thank Bickers by allowing her to take part in city contracts, the complaint alleges.
During the meeting, Bickers inquired about certification as a disadvantaged and minority-owned business. According to the lawsuit, Bickers told Coleman she would obtain a federally mandated waterworks project “with a partner of her choosing,” and Bickers needed help to make the paperwork pass muster and justify her partners’ getting the job.
Coleman said Bickers soon sent applications from newly-formed businesses tied to Bickers seeking disadvantaged business certification, but Coleman alleges none had the needed experience to handle major city projects.
The suit claims Bickers’ companies used “virtual” office space in Mississippi and did not have a physical location or employees based in Jackson.
According to Coleman’s lawsuit, Powell and three other Jackson officials who were on the evaluation committee for the EPA Consent Decree project tried to steer the work to the partnership that included Bickers as a minority subcontractor.
Bicker’s firm, the Bickers Group, which in Georgia is known as a public relations and marketing company, was listed as having 41 percent of the equal business opportunity participation in the waterworks project.
Coleman raised objections to her supervisors and to Jackson council members that the Bickers Group failed to meet Equal Business Opportunity requirements, according to the lawsuit.
The bid involving Bickers was eventually rejected and the city rebid the management contract.
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