Torpy at Large: Of mice and men, and rats and stool pigeons

Atlanta corruption menagerie also includes canaries

Years ago, when I was still working in Chicago, my lawyer friend, Gary, was bragging on a client who wouldn’t give up his cohorts in a drug case.

The defendant was an Italian-American fellow, but he wasn’t necessarily a made guy. He was just a fan of Mafia movies and believed in the whole deal about omerta, which is Italian for not squealing.

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“He’s just gonna take his licks,” my bud told me. “He’s not like these Yuppie coke dealers I usually get who’ll turn in their mothers.”

I was thinking about that exchange Tuesday in federal court as Atlanta construction contractor Elvin "E.R" Mitchell Jr. was sentenced to five years in prison for serial bribery to get big city contracts. E.R. has been singing like a canary for the feds and is expected to continue to do so. They probably will knock off some months or years from his sentence for his efforts.

We know this because it came out in court, but also because in 2015, an Atlanta city worker — who is also a convicted scam artist — tossed a brick through Mitchell's living room window with a message scribbled on it: "ER, keep your mouth shut!!! Shut up."

To make sure the point wasn't lost on E.R., the brick tosser left some dead rats on Mitchell's porch.

But E.R. didn’t listen. He wore a wire that ensnared contractor Charles P. Richards, a former friend and business partner who pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 27 months. We don’t know who E.R. paid ($1 million-plus in bribes) to get millions in contracts between 2010 and 2015. Nor do we know what turned E.R. from briber to tipster in 2015. The feds are all hush-hush on what they’re up to.

For many years, E.R. was a player in the world of politics and business in Atlanta. His father started E.R. Mitchell Co. in 1960 and Mitchell firms were a pedigreed bunch when it came to the city’s top minority-owned contractors. They did work for the city, as well as for Fulton and DeKalb county school systems, Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and even the Georgia World Congress Center.

E.R. has also shown the love to politicians. In 2009, he hosted a fundraiser for Kasim Reed, who was on his way to becoming Atlanta mayor. Mitchell then co-chaired a 2011 event where he raised $10,000 for The Mayor.

Hizzoner’s office has said he could barely pick E.R. out of a police lineup. The Mayor has not been implicated in this unfolding drama, but having this steaming pile festering on his doorstep hurts the legacy business and gives the city’s dozen mayoral candidates something to pontificate upon.

Elvin “E.R.” Mitchell Jr. walks to the federal court Tuesday morning, October 10, 2017. Mitchell was sentenced to five years in prison for his role in the Atlanta City Hall bribery scheme. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: Hyosub Shin

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Credit: Hyosub Shin

Recently, Adam Smith, the city's former purchasing director, 'fessed up to taking $30,000 in bribes, making him the first city official snagged in the investigation. The feds say Smith was taking the bribes at $1,000 a pop from an unnamed contractor in various restaurant bathrooms from 2015 until this January. That's a lot of lunches where he excused himself from the table and then left the eatery a bit richer.

The now-Visible Hand of Adam Smith (bad economics class joke here) leads us to yet another mystery in the Atlanta scandal.

What’s puzzling isn’t that Smith, who oversaw just about all contracts in the city, has gone all stool pigeon. It’s clear he’ll be a key witness, like a cog in the corruption. One would assume authorities aren’t squeezing a city department head to nab one of his subordinates or some middling contractor. Yes, the investigation is going slow, but you may recall the feds were digging around City Hall for more than four years when they finally indicted Mayor Bill Campbell in 2004. He later went to prison. (Once again, Mayor Reed, I am NOT comparing you to Campbell, so please leave that out of this week’s press release blasting me!)

Atlanta’s former chief purchasing officer, Adam Smith (left), leaves the federal courthouse after pleading guilty in September. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: Hyosub Shin

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Credit: Hyosub Shin

No, what’s baffling is that a top city official with a Georgetown University law degree and a master’s from Yale put his career, law license and freedom on the line for $1,000 bathroom “gifts.” (Although that’s merely what Smith is owning up to. There might be more.)

I called lawyer Jerry Froelich and asked, why would Smith risk so much for such chump change?

Froelich — who got an airport contractor acquitted in the 1990s bribery scandal and helped beat down most of the charges against Campbell — chuckled at the question.

“They don’t think of the consequences,” he said. “They think, ‘I can put some money in my pocket and go on vacation.’”

And now Smith likely is.

Left: a police mugshot of former city of Atlanta employee Shandarrick Barnes. Right: the infamous brick that Barnes is accused of throwing in an alleged attempt to intimidate a key figure in the Atlanta City Hall bribery scandal. 

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I called attorney Bill Morrison, who represents Shandarrick Barnes, the guy who tossed the brick through E.R.'s window and sprinkled dead rats on his porch.

The lawyer noted Smith’s importance to the furtherance of juris prudence. “I can’t imagine he doesn’t know everything.”

Morrison noted the inherent unfairness of the matter. “With all the money flowing around, my client is the only one in jail,” he said.

Morrison isn’t saying but it seems Barnes doesn’t know a lot, or he wouldn’t be stewing in a cell.

Barnes used to work for Mitzi Bickers, a pastor and political consultant who once worked for the city as director of human services after helping The Mayor get elected. Bickers has all sorts of business connections with E.R. and her records were subpoenaed in the bribery connection. She has not been charged with anything. Who knows who she's talking to. Or if she is.

Meanwhile, distinguished men like E.R. Mitchell and Adam Smith are talking. I’m sure they hate being relegated to rathood, but that’s the price of crime.