The unfolding bribery scandal at City Hall, explained

Credit Alliance Defending Freedom
City Hall's latest scandal looks like a doozy (Alliance Defending Freedom)

Since the arrest of Ervin “E.R.” Mitchell in January there has been a never ending series of bombshells in the ongoing federal investigation into the buying of contracts at Atlanta City Hall. The latest shook the city Tuesday with the firing of Chief Procurement Officer Adam Smith, the man responsible for the process by which private companies acquired contracts from the city of Atlanta. This was quickly followed by the seizure of several items from his office, including his phone and computer. The Mayor has not given the cause for his removal.

How did we get here? Thanks to excellent coverage by the AJC, Channel 2, Fox 5, and 11Alive, a lot has been revealed in just a month. With so much information, so quickly, it might be a good idea to look back and figure out what we know, and what are the questions that still remain.

In January, a longtime Metro-Atlanta government contractor was arrested for bribery charges

Ervin “ER” Mitchell Jr.

On January 18th, Ervin “E.R.” Mitchell Jr. was arraigned on bribery and money laundering charges. Mitchell was the son of Atlanta business man Ervin Mitchell Sr., who founded Capitol City Bank & Trust, one of the largest minority owned banks in the city until the great recession. Together they owned several construction companies. Their firms have done business with several government-owned projects including Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, DeKalb and Fulton County Schools, and the Georgia World Congress Center. The AJC described the Mitchells and their companies as “…a fixture in the region’s public procurement scene for decades.

The city was rocked when it was revealed that the charges stemmed from accusations that Mitchell and another un-named contractor(later revealed to be Lithonia Businessman Charles P Richards Jr) had paid over a million dollars in bribes to a city official, with the understanding that that money would be passed along to people who could influence contract procurement. The scheme is alleged to have gone on from 2010 to 2015. U.S. attorney John A. Horn said, “Mitchell brazenly sought to buy government contracts.” The city confirmed that they had been working with the Justice Department “for a long time now… and would continue to do so.”

This is not the first time Mitchell has been accused of behaving less than ethically with government contracts. In 2007 E.R. Mitchell & Co. was suspended and then fired from a construction project for the DeKalb County School system. The firms sued the county, alleging false termination with the County countersuing with allegations of billing fraud and mismanagement. In 2006 the Mitchell spent $1 million dollars settling with Fulton County Schools following their forensic audit of his spending on four school projects, and was banned from bidding on any future contracts with the school system.

On January 25th Mitchell plead guilty to all charges, he faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $500,000 fine, though the feds will take his cooperation into account before sentencing.

On February 2nd the AJC uncovered that Mitchell’s companies were paid at least $7.3 million by the city. The AJC was also able to show a pattern of withdrawals that coincided with payments from the cities. 10 payments were for emergency services, with Mitchell cashing in during the winter storms in 2011 and 2014. If the Chief Procurement Officer decides that emergency services are needed they can bypass the bidding process and with little oversight award the contract to whomever they wish. Adam Smith had been the Chief Procurement Officer during the entire period in question.

In September 2015 someone attempted to intimidate Mitchell, leading the press to a former Atlanta city official.

Shanddarick Barnes

In September 2015 a brick was thrown through Mitchell’s window with “Shut up” and “ER, keep your mouth shut!!!” written on it. Mitchell later found dead rat’s strewn across his property as well. This is a pretty good indication that the FBI was already talking to Mitchell even then as well as why the operation stopped after 2015. In the November of 2016, a man named Shandarrick Barnes was arrested for the incident. Barnes had previously been imprisoned in 2010 for a bail bonding scheme. Before that Barnes was CFO for The Bickers Group owned by one Mitzie Bickers.

This was the first time Mitzie Bickers appeared in connection with the growing Bribery case, and the press began to look into her background where they found too many connections to be a coincidence. Not only did she employ Barnes, but according to a 2012 senate resolution honoring her, she held the position of Vice President of E.R. Mitchell Company, one of Mitchell’s many contracting companies. Upon further investigation into the relationship Fox5 discovered that they also jointly had been the subjects of a lawsuit alleging fraud. According to the lawsuit, Mitchell’s ER Mitchell Construction Company received a loan of $345,795 from Calvin Darden, a former UPS executive, for an unnamed real estate project. For some reason, Mitchell wanted the money to flow through Mitzie Bickers’ Chateau Land Company first. Darden’s suit alleges that Mitchell intentionally misrepresented his relationship with Bickers, and that none of the money was payed back.

Mitzie Bickers at a meeting of the Atlanta Board of Education (AJC)

Bickers has been a presence in Atlanta and southern politics for years. She served on the Atlanta School Board from the 90’s until 2003 when she made an unsuccessful run for Chair of Fulton County. She was a key strategist in Mayor Reed’s tight runoff victory in 2009, and subsequently served as Human Services Director from 2010 to 2013. She was forced to leave after Channel 2 uncovered that she had failed to report her income from her consulting business with City Hall. In 2014 she was credited with getting African Americans to help Republican Thad Cochran defeat his tea party challenger in Mississippi.

The City reluctantly released public records related to the bribery case

When the press began to ask for the public records related to Mitchell and the process by which he procured his contracts, the city initially refused. They sighted the ongoing investigation as the reason why they couldn’t release the documents. The AJC and 11Alive immediately began working to get a subpoena to force the city to release the documents. With mounting pressure Mayor Reed elected to go ahead and release the documents; however he decided to release not just the documents asked for but every document related to the case which totaled just under 1.5 million documents; 11Alive broke down the cost in terms of money and trees.

Ryan Kruger of 11Alive found many illegible sheets in the 1.47 million documents released by the city.

When the Mayor released the documents he held a 40 minute press conference where he emphatically maintained his innocence and answered questions, clearly frustrated at having to deal with this scandal in his final year as mayor. He was asked why they were given in printed form as opposed to electric, he responded that the only way they could properly redact private information was by printing. When asked he said that he had not been questioned by the FBI nor had his brother Tracy Reed. The Mayor distanced himself from Bickers, admitting that she helped him in the runoff, but adding that she was given the job as Human Services Director solely because as a pastor she was uniquely qualified for the role.

When reporters began pouring through the mountain of documents that the Mayor released, they immediately noticed a few issues. They found entire boxes filled with blank pages, and charts printed so small they were illegible. The paralegal on hand said that the blank pages were the empty cells of a spreadsheet, and gave no explanation for the illegible charts.

This Investigation is connected to a lawsuit in Jackson Mississippi

On February 16th the AJC reported that former Jackson City Equal opportunity Business manager Stephanie Coleman had filed a lawsuit alleging that she had been terminated for blowing the whistle on city contracts being steered toward businesses owned by Mitzie Bickers. Looking into these accusations they found an eery similarities between Jackson and Atlanta.

Two states west, Mitzie Bickers is, in the words of Jackson Mayor Tony Yarber, “A kingmaker”. After the death of Mayor Chokwe Lumumba, Bickers supported Yarber in the 2014 special election. She donated $14,000 to his campaign with E.R. Mitchell donating another $10,000. According to a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by Yarber’s secretary, Bickers threw a fundraiser for Yarber at a New Orleans strip club, featuring “Strippers wearing only body paint.” In 2015 Coleman alleges that Bickers met with her to let her know that, “Mayor Yarber had decided that she would get the EPA Consent Decree Management Contract with a partner of her choosing.”

Keisha Powell (Jackson Free Press)

The bid was rejected by the Jackson City Council citing concerns that the contractors had inappropriate influence with the mayor.

Another connection uncovered by the AJC was our own commissioner of the Watershed Management Department: Keisha Powell. According to Coleman’s lawsuit Powell was on a city contracts evaluation committee and steered many contracts toward certain bidding groups. In an interview with the AJC and Channel 2 Coleman said,  “I’m not saying that I heard that she was steering contracts, I’m saying I was in there when she steered contracts.” Amongst them was a sewer rebuild contract that Coleman alleges Powell steered toward a group that included Bickers. Powell has denied all wrongdoing, and Mayor Reed has stated that Powell has his “full confidence”.

Mayor Reed has been neither directly nor indirectly implicated in these charges, nor have we learned who received the payments.

Mayor Reed answers questions in front of the boxes of released documents (AJC)

When the city of Atlanta released 1.47 million documents related to the case, the mayor gave a 40 minute press conference. When he was asked if he had ever taken a bribe he gave an answer that has done a pretty good job of shutting down suspicions for many. “I have poured myself into this job, I have wanted to be Mayor of Atlanta since I was 13, do you think I would throw my life away for some short-term gratification?” Even long-time Reed critic Bill Torpy was convinced, though he did question his defensiveness.

At this point we still don’t know who Mitchell was paying in the city. And while Mitchell did admit that the money was intended to be spread around, there is no evidence it even reached the level of COO or Chief of Staff, officially the two positions that report directly to the Mayor. Another important point, is that so far, no one in the Mayor’s race has been implicated either. Though Peter Aman was Atlanta COO during the first two years the payments were taking place, he has faced no accusations of corruption.

When Adam Smith was fired his computer and phone were taken by the FBI. However; former federal prosecutor Zhara S Karinshak told the AJC this doesn’t necessarily mean that he is a suspect, “At this point you don’t know that he’s the target, he might just be the guy with all the papers.” She also told them, “The Feds are following the trail, and wherever Hansel and Gretel have been then that’s where they’ll follow it,” adding, “The FBI didn’t fire him, the city did.”

What we know for sure is that this is far from over. Bickers couldn’t possibly have been the city official mentioned as she resigned in 2013 and the payments lasted until 2015, and neither law experts or long time reporters believe that this ends with Smith. As for Keisha Powell, we do not know whether or not she is a subject of the investigation.

We will update this article as more is revealed.

Disclaimer: the author of this piece was the Field Director for the Mayor’s re-election campaign from August to November 2013.

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