In the pre-dawn hours of Sept. 11, 2015, Shandarrick Barnes had a message to deliver to a longtime Atlanta contractor who was talking to the feds, and Barnes chose to send it with brick.
Printed with red ink was an unmistakable threat to Elvin “E.R.” Mitchell Jr.: “Shut up ER, keep your mouth shut!!!” Mitchell awoke that morning to the sound of shattered glass and found dead rats scattered about his property.
On Monday, Barnes was sentenced to 37 months in federal prison for trying to intimidate Mitchell. Only weeks before the brick crashed through his living room window, Mitchell had agreed to cooperate in the federal investigation of corruption at Atlanta City Hall.
Kurt Erskine, first assistant U.S. Attorney in Atlanta, called the early morning act of vandalism and intimidation “mob-like tactics” to silence a federal witness, asking U.S. District Court Judge Steve Jones for the 37-month sentence to send a signal that witness tampering won’t be tolerated.
“This is something like you see out of a book, cinder blocks going through windows, rats on front door steps of federal witnesses,” Erskine said after the hearing, adding that “Barnes and others intended to send a message here.”
Erskine said that Barnes saw Mitchell’s cooperation as the end of a gravy train for himself and The Rev. Mitzi Bickers, his boss in a job outside his work for the city and a longtime friend. Bickers is a well-connected political consultant who helped former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed win election in 2009 and worked in Reed’s administration from 2010 to 2013.
At the time of the brick incident, Bickers was doing political consulting work in Jackson, Miss., and she was also seeking lucrative construction contracts there, Erskine said.
Bickers was accused in an 11-count indictment unsealed last week of conspiring to receive more than $2 million in bribes to win city of Atlanta contracts for Mitchell and another contractor. She also was accused of witness tampering in relation to the brick incident at Mitchell’s home.
She has pleaded not guilty.
“Ms. Bickers met with Mr. Barnes immediately prior to this incident and she told him that E.R Mitchell needs to keep his damned mouth shut,” Erskine said Monday.
Bickers didn’t order Barnes directly to threaten Mitchell, Erskine said, but Barnes saw Mitchell’s cooperation with the feds as a threat to his income.
“Bickers made it clear to him she couldn’t keep Barnes on the payroll if Mitchell cooperated,” Erskine said in court.
Bill Morrison, an attorney for Barnes, told Judge Jones, his client cooperated and “admitted his mistakes” as soon as the feds approached him in July 2016.
But he asked for leniency for his client, in part because of his cooperation, and also because Barnes has been in and out of jail for more than a year awaiting trial and later, sentencing.
Barnes told Jones he’s spent months trying to determine what caused him to act.
“Such bizarre and selfish conduct perplexes even me,” Barnes said.
Barnes did not admit to placing the rats on Mitchell’s property. Asked if others might have been involved in the intimidation case, Erskine declined to say.
Jones said Barnes will get credit for five months in jail he previously served, and the Bureau of Prisons will decide if he will get credit for some eight months he served in state custody.
A trusted confidant
Barnes had deep connections to Bickers. Her name was on his employment application for a city of Atlanta job after he got out of prison in 2013 for a racketeering conviction for defrauding two local governments.
Barnes also worked for Bickers in several capacities before he went to prison, records reviewed by the AJC show. And he continued to work for her after she left City Hall in 2013, when Barnes was still employed by the city.
Before he went to prison, Bickers listed him as chief financial officer of one of her companies, a marketing and public relations firm called the Bickers Group, state incorporation records show.
Bickers was identified as CFO of Chateau Land Company, and records listed Barnes as secretary of Chateau in 2007 and 2008. Both companies were listed in the Bickers indictment as vehicles for moving around bribe money.
Barnes also acted as a trusted confidant, helping Bickers lease office space in Mississippi, book hotel rooms and air travel, wire money and incorporate at least three of her companies, an AJC investigation last year found.
Last year, Stephanie Coleman, a former city of Jackson contracting official sued the city and then-Mayor Tony Yarber alleging wrongful termination. In her complaint, she alleged Bickers asked her help to craft applications for minority certification to make them look legitimate. She also alleged Bickers told her that Yarber had promised Bickers a piece of a substantial waterworks contract in the Mississippi capital city.
Coleman also alleged Kishia Powell, then-Jackson’s public works director and now watershed commissioner in Atlanta, tried to steer a contract to a group that included Bickers.
Powell denied any wrongdoing on Monday and said she’s not been contacted by federal authorities.
The Mississippi lawsuit remains pending.
Erskine said he could not comment on allegations of any wrongdoing in Jackson contracting, or if Barnes provided information about corruption in Atlanta or in Jackson.
To date, Barnes’ role in the bribery scandal has been viewed as a salacious but not a central role in the bribery probe. But Erskine said that’s not true.
“If Shandarrick Barnes had had his way in this particular case … maybe all the corruption we have now come to know… would not have come to light,” Erskine said.