OPINION: Bickers trial a window to shadowy version of the Atlanta Way

March 3, 2022 Atlanta - Mitzi Bickers, who served as Mayor Kasim Reed’s director of human services, arrives at the Richard B. Russell Federal Building for her hearing in federal court with her attorney, Drew Findling (left), on Thursday, March 3, 2022. Bickers is set to be the first person to face a jury in the Atlanta City Hall corruption investigation. She faces 12 counts related to an alleged conspiracy involving pay-to-play contracting. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

caption arrowCaption
March 3, 2022 Atlanta - Mitzi Bickers, who served as Mayor Kasim Reed’s director of human services, arrives at the Richard B. Russell Federal Building for her hearing in federal court with her attorney, Drew Findling (left), on Thursday, March 3, 2022. Bickers is set to be the first person to face a jury in the Atlanta City Hall corruption investigation. She faces 12 counts related to an alleged conspiracy involving pay-to-play contracting. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

They say pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered. That seems to be how the feds were tipped off to a long-running bribery scheme at Atlanta City Hall.

For several years, contractors E.R. Mitchell Jr. and C.P. Richards Jr. had a good thing going. Federal prosecutors allege they were paying off Mitzi Bickers, a politically connected pastor and city employee, to get the inside track on sidewalk and bridge repair work and snow removal services for the city of Atlanta.

But in 2014, the FBI got a call from a bank saying a contractor was withdrawing huge amounts of cash, a classic tipoff that something fishy is afoot.

Mitchell received $5.5 million in snow removal work in 2014 in the wake of the now-infamous Snowmageddon. Months later, he was observed withdrawing lots of cash to allegedly pay Bickers $900,000 — or a 15% finder’s fee ― for the work. If true, it’s a classic saga: greed and hubris did them in.

Prosecutors say Bickers put the cash to good use, buying a $775,000 lake house, a GMC Denali, wave runners, vacations, meals at restaurants and luxury goods from Gucci and Louis Vuitton.

Federal prosecutor Jeff Davis told a jury Bickers was a master manipulator who hoodwinked Mitchell, a veteran contractor desperate for work after getting slammed by the Great Recession of 2008. Sure, E.R. might have gone to Harvard, Davis said, “but he wasn’t necessarily street smart. He followed Pastor Bickers with blind faith.”

The disclosures came Thursday during the start of the long-delayed corruption trial against Bickers, who for decades has been in the thick of Atlanta’s political scene. She was chair of the Atlanta School Board, an effective get-out-the-vote guru who helped Kasim Reed get elected in 2009 and, later, a city employee accused of opening the spigot to ill-gotten gains.

caption arrowCaption
October 10, 2017 Atlanta - 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

October 10, 2017 Atlanta - 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

caption arrowCaption
October 10, 2017 Atlanta - 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

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Marissa Goldberg, one of Bickers’ lawyers, told jurors that federal investigators put on blinders when investigating the case and were “relentless” in squeezing people like Mitchell and Richards. The two flipped for the government, went to prison, and are testifying against Bickers.

The feds contend it was Bickers who applied the pressure, specifically on Mitchell, who was cooperating. In fact, a brick with a message telling him to shut up crashed through a window at his home in 2015. And a few dead rats were sprinkled on his doorstep as an exclamation point.

An associate of Bickers’, Shandarrick Barnes, ‘fessed up to that and was sentenced to prison. He did not, however, admit to the rats’ portion of the crime. They seem to be the true victims here, as were the taxpayers, who overpaid for work.

Goldberg called her client a “child of Atlanta,” the daughter of the Rev. Benjamin Weldon Bickers, who was a boyhood friend of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Bickers replaced her father after his death at the pulpit at Emmanuel Baptist.

One could say this is an Atlanta story all the way around. Both Mitchell and Richards are legacies, too, following in their fathers’ footsteps to run their companies. In 2012, Mitchell told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that his father, a trained brick mason who had just died at age, 97, “believed you should start work early and work hard until you are done.”

At the time, Mitchell Jr. was cutting corners and allegedly funneling $2 million to Bickers to get work.

The relationships between Richards, Mitchell and Bickers also represent another tradition, the Atlanta Way, of how cross-racial relationships are forged through politics and business.

Richards, who started working for his father’s construction firm in the 1960s, said he met Mitchell in 1981. Mitchell, who is Black, told Richards, who is not, that money could be made for both of them through the city’s affirmative action contracting program. Soon, Richards’ company got work and Mitchell’s firm did the the masonry work. They also became longtime friends and business associates.

caption arrowCaption
Charles P. Richards, right, a contractor who is later pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery in order to obtain City of Atlanta contracts, leaves the U.S. District Court with his attorney Lynne Borsuk, Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017, in Atlanta. BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL

Charles P. Richards, right, a contractor who is later pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery in order to obtain City of Atlanta contracts, leaves the U.S. District Court with his attorney Lynne Borsuk, Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017, in Atlanta. BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL

caption arrowCaption
Charles P. Richards, right, a contractor who is later pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery in order to obtain City of Atlanta contracts, leaves the U.S. District Court with his attorney Lynne Borsuk, Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017, in Atlanta. BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL

But the recession gutted Mitchell’s company, leaving it as merely a shell with hardly any employees. In December 2009, with Bickers ready to start work with the city, Mitchell asked Richards for $20,000, Richards testified. “He said he was going to spread it around in the city.”

Mitchell called it “marketing money.” Wink, wink.

Richards said construction work had dried up at the time and he was getting perhaps only one out of every 50 jobs that he bid. He wanted a sure thing and Mitchell’s path seemed like it. Soon, city work flowed in. For instance, one contract originally worth $750,000 ultimately netted his firm $5 million, mostly from no-bid “amendments” that were later added on.

Asked how much work Mitchell’s firm was performing, Richards answered, “None.”

“I was paying him as a minority subcontractor that I was required to have,” he testified.

Richards said he learned money was going to Bickers when Mitchell summoned him to a bank in May 2011 to get him to withdraw $50,000. Mitchell told him Bickers was crucial to them getting work and was having legal problems. The implication was that if she went down, so would they.

Richards said he got the money for her, explaining to the jury, “I knew what we were doing was illegal and I did not want to be implicated.”

He knew that once you’re in, you’re in. All in.

It’s the Atlanta Way.

About the Author

Editors' Picks