OPINION: Atlanta bribery trial is a chilling lesson on city contracting

Uh-oh, Atlanta, the snow is coming! Who you gonna call?

E.R. Mitchell Jr., contracting scamster extraordinaire, of course.

It was January 2014 and a storm that ended up shutting down the city was on its way. Most people saw inconvenience. Others saw opportunity.

Mitchell said he got a call and it was City Hall insider Mitzi Bickers on the line. “I believe we can get some of this work, just like last time,” she allegedly told him, referring to 2011 when a snowstorm ended up as a contracting bonanza.

Mitchell said that Bickers told him to expect a call from Cotena Alexander, then an operations manager in the Department of Public Works. Alexander had also lined up Mitchell with work in a snowstorm three years before.

Mitchell, who later went to prison for his role in a wide-ranging bribery shakedown at City Hall, is no longer behind bars. Last week, he was on the witness stand at the federal courthouse downtown as a star witness for the prosecution. The ongoing federal bribery trial against Bickers, a politically connected preacher and former city employee, has lifted a rock on how things sometimes get done in Atlanta.

On the stand, Mitchell explained that emergency work is not cheap. He said he had to rent trucks, pay drivers and add his 20% markup, as well as an 18% finder’s fee for Bickers.

Two weeks later, Mitchell was again summoned to help with another snowstorm, even though he wasn’t one of the city’s officially earmarked snow-removal contractors. The city’s order for heavy machinery this time was steep. He was asked to deliver 15 spreaders, 15 service vehicles, 30 dump trucks, 15 loaders and 15 lowboy trailers. At the time, Mitchell’s cash-strapped company had perhaps just four dump trucks. But never mind that. Dollar signs were falling from the heavens like snow.

Testimony shows E.R. delivered salt to the city for $195 a ton. Other contractors got $120 per ton.

Prosecutors say Mitchell pulled in more than $5.3 million for his 2014 snow efforts and Bickers got $900,000 in the ensuing weeks. Her alleged cut works out to be about 17%.

It’s not like Mitchell’s corruption-inflated snow-removal rates went unnoticed.

Three years earlier, after the 2011 snowstorm, Mitchell was hauled into a meeting with Public Works higher-ups concerned about the sky-high prices. Mitchell testified that Bickers called him before the meeting, clueing him into what was coming.

“She was managing the process at the city,” Mitchell told the jury.

Mitchell stood firm on his prices and got paid within a couple of weeks of his work, a head-spinningly fast turnaround for payouts at the city. I’ve spoken with contractors waiting more than a year for payment. He got $1,168,000 for his 2011 work and, according to prosecutors, delivered about $190,000 in cash to Bickers for her efforts.

Bickers was invaluable, Mitchell said, well worth the money. She “yielded results,” he told the jury, later adding, “We would have never gotten the work and paid so promptly” without her.

At the time, Mitchell owned a construction company that carved a path to becoming a $100 million-a-year business through the minority contracting route. Mitchell often teamed up with a white contractor named C.P. Richards Jr., although both were struggling in the wake of the Great Recession of 2008.

Credit: Lucy Luckovich

Credit: Lucy Luckovich

Mitchell’s fortunes saw a renewal in 2010, when Bickers started working at the city with a new administration. Mitchell said she contacted him almost immediately, telling him about an annual sidewalk contract. The city was looking to set up contractors to build sidewalks and fix gutters on an ongoing basis. Mitchell’s buddy, Richards, bid on that work, but was “seventh of seven or eighth of eight,” in the process, Mitchell recalled. “It was last. It was the highest.”

But that’s no problem if you have the inside track.

Mitchell explained the secret sauce of city contracting to the jury. “The value of these annual contracts is not the contract itself, it’s the ancillary work.” Translation: Once you’ve got a place at the trough, put your head down and keep feeding.

Even though Richards came in last in the bidding, he ended up getting perhaps 25% of the work and stayed on the city’s dole for five years. The contract was originally set for $750,000 but ultimately netted him $5 million until the feds started sniffing around.

Likewise, Mitchell said, they got a six-month head start on getting bridge repair work, thanks to inside info provided them, at a cost, from Bickers.

Bickers’ attorneys have cast Mitchell as an ethically challenged scoundrel, which, of course, he is.

But a conundrum has settled over the trial. Although Bickers is connected at City Hall, she could not actually have issued the contracts. Federal prosecutors have pointed a finger at longtime city employee Alexander, whose name has popped up constantly in emails and in testimony.

In opening statements, prosecutors told jurors that Bickers paid Alexander, who used the money to pay off $30,000 in credit card debt. Alexander has not been charged with anything and remained working with the city until her name surfaced in the trial. She is now on leave.

She has also left Bickers’ lawyers in a quandary by pleading the Fifth. That means they can’t cross-examine her to get to the bottom of all this. It’s like Alexander is a ghost haunting the whole affair.

And it’s a spooky matter, at least if you’re a fan of good government.