A contractor who has admitted paying bribes for city of Atlanta contracts paid more than $1.6 million over three years to an influential political consultant who held a high-ranking job in Mayor Kasim Reed’s administration, records obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution show.
One six-figure payment from E.R. Mitchell Construction Company to a business led by the Rev. Mitzi Bickers, who worked for the city from 2010 to 2013, matches the date and amount of a bribe Elvin “E.R.” Mitchell Jr. pleaded guilty to making — a $110,000 wire transfer on April 1, 2014.
Federal prosecutors have not named the person to whom the bribe payments were made in the cash-for-contracts scandal, which was active from at least 2010 to 2015. Mitchell and a second contractor admitted to conspiring to pay more than $1 million to a person under the belief some of the money would go to one or more people with influence over city contracts.
The AJC reviewed a portion of Mitchell’s banking records from 2013 to 2015. In all, checks or wire payments from Mitchell companies went to Bickers and her companies 80 times, the records show.
The payments reveal a much deeper financial relationship between Mitchell and Bickers than previously was known. They also raise fresh questions about what Bickers, a Baptist minister and a political consultant, was doing to earn such large sums.
Two checks reviewed by the AJC indicated in the memo line that the payments were for “Govt Relations.”
Some of the records reveal payments to Mitchell from co-conspirator Charles P. Richards Jr.’s construction company that came within days of bribe payments identified by federal prosecutors. On Aug. 7, 2015, for example, Mitchell deposited $30,000 on the same day Richards has admitted to writing a $30,000 check as a bribe, documents show.
Both Mitchell and Richards have agreed to cooperate with the ongoing investigation.
Bickers has not been charged in the case, but the U.S. Attorney’s Office subpoenaed her emails and work product from the city of Atlanta and the Clayton County Sheriff’s Office, where she currently works as a chaplain.
Neither Bickers nor her attorney, Carl Lietz, responded to the AJC’s request for an interview, nor did they answer questions emailed to them about the payments, Bickers’ role in the investigation, and her relationship with Mitchell.
In May, the AJC reported that Bickers’ criminal defense team had asked their client for a record of every bank deposit made into her accounts during the time frame of the bribery scheme. They wanted the documents “to identify proper taxable income,” according to documents turned over to prosecutors through subpoena.
Craig Gillen, Mitchell’s criminal defense attorney, did not respond to messages and questions about the payments. Lynne Borsuk, Richards’ attorney, also declined to comment.
Paul Murphy, a former U.S. Attorney who is now a partner with King & Spalding, said the transactions are not necessarily nefarious, but they would be of interest to federal prosecutors.
“What the government would be interested in would be what was the nature of the relationship between E.R. Mitchell and Bickers and what happened to the money,” he said. “What the government does in an investigation is it follows the money.”
A spokeswoman for Reed reiterated past statements that the city is fully cooperating with federal authorities and said “those involved in any wrongdoing should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
Two checks for “Govt Relations”
It’s unclear why Mitchell and his companies — construction firms with a long history of government contracting — paid so much money to Bickers’ companies that advise political campaigns.
The two checks marked for “Govt Relations” were for a combined $22,335 on Sept. 13, 2013. They were written to Pirouette, a Bickers’ political consulting company, three and a half months after Bickers left her $62,500-a-year job as director of human services for Mayor Reed.
Bickers is not a registered lobbyist with the state. She does, however, have extensive personal ties at City Hall, after helping Reed’s campaign win the mayor’s office in 2009. Reed has publicly downplayed Bickers’ role in his administration since her name has been linked to the investigation.
In 2012, Bickers took a leave of absence to drum up political support for a statewide transportation sales tax, a job she was given because of her extensive contacts throughout metro Atlanta.
Deposits made into Mitchell’s accounts also align with allegations laid out in the government’s case, according to documents reviewed by the AJC. That includes a $20,000 check from Richards in January 2013 that matches the amount and date of a bribe payment he admitted to making.
The AJC review of Mitchell’s bank records found that he twice wrote checks to Bickers within days or weeks of bribe payments Richards has admitted to making.
For example, Richards admitted to paying a $50,000 bribe through a wire transfer on March 27, 2014. Mitchell’s financial records show he wrote a $50,000 check to Pirouette eight days earlier. Likewise, Richards admitted to paying a $12,000 bribe with a check on June 26, 2015 — a payment that happened 16 days after Mitchell wrote a check to Pirouette for the same amount, according to Mitchell’s bank records.
It is unclear if those two payments from Mitchell to Bickers’ companies are related to the bribery investigation. The U.S. Attorney’s Office, which has not identified recipients of the alleged bribes, declined comment.
At times, Mitchell’s companies paid firms tied to Bickers thousands of dollars several times a month, sometimes writing multiple checks on the same day.
In December 2014, for example, Mitchell wrote the following checks: $11,642 to The Bickers Group on Dec. 9; $8,000 to Korah Music Group on Dec. 23; $11,868 to The Bickers Group on Dec. 24; $14,000 to The Bickers Group on Dec. 24; and $15,736 to Pirouette on Dec. 29.
The Bickers Group is also a political consulting firm. Korah is an artist management company registered in Nevada. Bickers is listed as an officer in the company with a Stockbridge, Georgia, address that belongs to a UPS store.
“Korah Music Group discovers and manages artists who want to turn the world around through the liberal arts,” a website describing the company says. “Our leadership team has the industry knowledge and experience to push the inner gift from your soul to the world.”
Bickers’ neighbor gets $582k
Mitchell’s financial records also show a connection between Mitchell and a contractor, Robert Walker of Jonesboro, who appears to have business ties of his own to Bickers.
On March 7, 2014, Mitchell wired $582,500 to Georgia Project Management and Design. The AJC could find no business registration for the company with the Georgia Secretary of State. But a company invoice was submitted to the city of Atlanta by Robert Walker for “disaster recovery” cleaning work in February 2014, and it lists its address as a suite within the same Stockbridge UPS store Bickers used on the Korah Music incorporation document.
Property records show Walker once lived about a mile and a half from Bickers near Lake Spivey. A Robert Walker with that same Jonesboro address was the chief financial officer in a defunct company which listed Bickers as its chief executive and was registered at her Jonesboro address, state records show.
When contacted by phone, Walker told the AJC that the wire transfer was payment was for subcontracting work he performed for Mitchell. Walker declined to answer any other questions and said his attorney would contact the AJC.
A memo line on the wire says it was for “Snow 2014.”
The AJC reported in February that Mitchell’s Cascade Building Systems was given $5.3 million of emergency contract work during the devastating 2014 ice storm — 65 percent of the money Atlanta spent cleaning up after the storm. Emergency contracting is not required to go through the city’s normal competitive bidding process.
An AJC investigation found that some of Cascade’s billing seemed excessive. In one case, Cascade charged city taxpayers 1,000 hours of overtime for equipment at $442 an hour — about $200-an-hour more than price quotes provided by the other companies that performed work during that storm.
Walker’s company also performed work directly for the city during that storm, cleaning three buildings for $40,500. A city spokeswoman said in a recent email the contract was necessary to clean up after 350 public works employees who camped out in the buildings during the city’s recovery effort.
Alvin Kendall, an attorney for Walker, said Thursday his client provided “equipment and labor to remove snow” for Mitchell’s company, which was the city’s primary contractor. Georgia Project Management and Design isn’t registered with the Secretary of State, Kendall said, because Walker is a sole proprietor.
Kendall said his client was not a part of any wrongdoing.
“The only thing I have discussed with (Walker) about any wrongdoing is what we read in the newspaper,” Kendall said. “And to the extent of what we read in the newspaper, he doesn’t know anything about Mr. Mitchell.”
Kendall also said he did not know if his client had been questioned about Mitchell or Bickers by federal authorities.
Relationship extends to real estate, development
Mitchell and Bickers’ relationship goes back more than a decade.
In October 2004, Bickers filed for bankruptcy protection after a failed run for Fulton County Commission chair.
Mitchell came to the rescue, with a $65,000-a-year job as an executive in one of his construction companies, and two bonuses paid soon after she was hired, according to documents in the bankruptcy case. Bickers withdrew her Chapter 13 petition in early 2005.
Other records suggest a cozy business relationship.
Fulton County property records show E.R. Mitchell Construction Co. sold a building on Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard in South Atlanta to Bickers for $350,000 in January 2015. Three months later, Bickers transferred ownership to a different Mitchell firm free of charge.
Mitchell, Bickers and the Chateau Land Co. were sued in 2013 over more than $300,000 in defaulted real estate loans issued in 2008 and 2009. Bickers was listed as Chateau’s chief financial officer at the time. The case was settled out of court in January 2014 for an undisclosed sum.
Several weeks before the settlement, Mitchell signed a check to Bickers for $39,775 with “Loan Repayment” written in the memo line, according to records reviewed by the AJC.
‘A partner of her choosing’
In 2014, the relationship between the two crossed over state lines into Mississippi, after Bickers helped Tony Yarber become Jackson’s mayor.
The Bickers Group incorporated in Jackson, Miss., in June 2014, and Bickers’ partner, Keyla Jackson, established a Mississippi presence for Pirouette with the Mississippi Secretary of State’s office that same month, according to incorporation records filed with the state.
A year later, Bickers and Keyla Jackson formed Mississippi Developers LLC, a company that was a partner in a proposed hotel project near the city’s convention center. About that time, Mitchell registered E.R. Mitchell Company LLC as a Mississippi business, and Mitchell and Bickers sought minority-business certification for their companies to help win city contracts.
It does not appear that any contracts were awarded to the companies.
A federal lawsuit, previously reported by the AJC, claims Bickers told the head of Jackson’s equal business opportunity office in May 2015 that she was a major donor and friend of Yarber, and the mayor “decided she would get” a federally-mandated waterworks project “with a partner of her choosing.”
Campaign finance records show Bickers and companies tied to her contributed $15,000 to Yarber’s campaign the previous year.
The lawsuit, filed by Stephanie Coleman in February, also says Bickers asked her for help making the paperwork justify the contract award. Coleman told the AJC and Channel 2 Action News in February that she had been interviewed by FBI agents in Jackson in November 2015 related to bid-steering allegations.
The Jackson City Council eventually rejected the bid by the team that included Bickers for the waterworks project.