Figure in Atlanta bribery probe sought to justify income to feds


Less than a month before the first charges were filed in the Atlanta City Hall bribery investigation, an urgent email landed in Rev. Mitzi Bickers’ inbox asking for a stack of her personal financial statements — documentation of the payments made in buying her $775,000 home, and all of her bank deposits from 2011 to 2015.

Bickers is a go-to political consultant whose work in 2009 helped make Kasim Reed mayor. She was hired as human services director in Reed’s nascent administration, and has been a long-time associate of contractor Elvin “E.R.” Mitchell Jr., who in January became the first person to plead guilty to bribery in the ongoing investigation.

Yet federal prosecutors’ specific interest in Bickers has remained a mystery. She has never been charged or identified as a suspect. The U.S. Attorney’s Office issued a subpoena to the city last summer demanding emails and other documents created during her three-year tenure there.

The Dec. 22 email from criminal defense attorney Carl Lietz sheds new light on Bickers’ place in the investigation and suggests prosecutors were attempting to build a case against her at the same time they were negotiating guilty pleas from Mitchell and another contractor, Charles P. Richards Jr. Both men have admitted to buying contracts by paying more than $1 million to an unnamed intermediary with connections at City Hall, beginning in 2010.

Bickers’ legal team was particularly concerned with documenting her sources of income. They said in the email that her deposit information was necessary to “identify proper taxable income” in building its defense. They also asked for a list of her political consulting fees from 2011-15, along with financial records from her church from 2013-15.

“We are at a critical time in responding to the government,” the email says. “We need to invest the time and effort to researching and scheduling Mitzi’s income sources and preparing to push back and/or defend what has happened.”

“It is important that we know the facts,” the email continues. “The government appears to have a misunderstanding about Mitzi’s finances but we need to confirm and document the facts before the government acts on their ‘misunderstood position.’”

The Lietz email was turned over to prosecutors by Clayton County, where Bickers has been employed as a chaplain by Sheriff Victor Hill since October. Such attorney-client communication is rarely a matter of public record, but Bickers forwarded the document from her private email account to her public inbox at the sheriff’s office in January.

One month later, the U.S. Attorney’s Office issued a subpoena to Clayton County for all emails and other documents related to Bickers’ employment. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution requested records responsive to the subpoena and received more than 700 pages that have been turned over to federal prosecutors, including the email exchange between Bickers and her legal team, through the Georgia Open Records Act.

The documents include what appear to be income information compiled in response to the legal teams’ query, as well as documents that shed more light on Bickers’ high-profile political consulting business.

Jessica Gabel Cino, the associate dean for academic affairs and an associate law professor at Georgia State’s Center for Access to Justice, reviewed the email communication between Bickers at her legal team for the AJC. She said Bickers attorney seemed to be compiling a defense to counter a classic federal corruption investigation.

“There’s generally two things the feds do in a corruption investigation: They look for common characters who link various individuals and a scheme together; and they follow the money,” Cino said. “They’ll do a deep dive on income and lifestyle, and does it make sense.

“All of that seems to be coalescing around Mitzi Bickers.”

It is unclear if Lietz is engaged on Bickers’ behalf in the federal bribery probe, as he declined to comment on the email, saying that doing so would be an ethical violation of attorney client privilege. He did not respond to questions about whether Bickers is a target in the federal probe.

Lietz is a trial attorney whose practice focuses primarily on federal white-collar crime. He formerly worked in Atlanta’s Federal Defender Office, where he was part of a team that defended Centennial Olympic Park bomber Eric Robert Rudolph.

“It is apparent that you are in possession of an email that is protected from disclosure under the attorney-client privilege and other protections,” Lietz wrote to the AJC. “The Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct prohibit me from discussing the email with you in any way; to do so would be a violation of the ethical rules that govern Georgia lawyers.”

An attorney working for Clayton County wrote a letter to the AJC on May 19, requesting return of the Lietz email and destruction of any copies. Lietz was copied on the correspondence. The attorney said the email was confidential because of attorney-client privilege.

The AJC, in consultation with its attorneys, concluded that the correspondence was obtained legally and was in the public’s interest, and that the newspaper was not bound by the rules that govern attorneys’ exchanges of information with their clients.

Bickers hung up on a reporter who called her cell phone, and did not respond to questions emailed to her. She has refused any public comment about the investigation since January, when her name first surfaced in relation to it.

Likewise, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office did not respond to questions sent through email about Bickers’ role in the investigation.

All of the Clayton County documents were turned over to Grand Jury #2-16, which is the same body considering evidence in the Atlanta bribery case. The deadline was March 28 — the same date by which Atlanta officials had to provide records under subpoena related to Adam Smith, the city’s fired chief purchasing officer who had a work computer and phone sized by agents in February.

An expensive lifestyle

The personal deposit history requested by Bickers’ legal team is not part of the public record. But information in various documents provided by Clayton County make it clear that Bickers’ finances are unusual for a sheriff’s office chaplain paid $37,000 a year, and a minister with a reported annual church salary of $25,000.

From 2012-16, a consulting company tied to Bickers, known as Pirouette Companies or Pirouette Strategies, earned $819,464 working for 34 candidates and two ballot initiatives, according to a spreadsheet included in emails sent to Bickers’ public Clayton account during work hours.

In 2011, Bickers purchased her 5,200-square-foot home on Lake Spivey in Henry County with a $524,000 down payment, then paid off the remainder of the mortgage less than a year later. She was a city employee making $62,500 at the time.

And vehicle insurance information, included in Clayton County emails, show that she and domestic partner Keyla Jackson have insurance on more than $100,000 worth of vehicles — including a 2016 Infiniti Q50, a 2012 Mercedes-Benz SUV and a 1964 Cadillac Seville. The couple also insure a 2006 Lexus SUV and a late-model GMC Sierra pickup truck.

It’s unclear why Bickers’ attorney needed financial records from her church as part of their defense. But those records also landed in Bickers’ inbox.

Bickers, 50, assumed the leadership position at Emmanuel Baptist Church in 1998, when her father Rev. Benjamin Weldon Bickers died. The elder Bickers, a childhood friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, founded the church in 1958.

According to a Feb. 7 email from First Citizens Bank, the church owed more than $375,000 as of Dec. 31, 2015. A church financial statement from Oct. 31, 2012, attached to a separate email from the bank, showed more than $238,000 in revenue and about $205,000 in expenses that year.

The church’s balance sheet was sent two days after Bickers told her attorney in an email that she had requested all statements from her bank. It does not list all sources of church revenue, just a single line item. The loan balance was emailed by the bank to Bickers’ public account a few weeks later.

On Jan. 24, the day before Mitchell pleaded guilty in the Atlanta bribery case, a secretary in the sheriff’s office fired off a quick email to Bickers.

“You good?” she asked.

At that moment, the bribery scandal had raged in the media for more than a week. And reporters from the AJC and Channel 2 had uncovered links between Mitchell and Bickers, and had been calling for days.

Bickers replied the next morning, just hours before Mitchell walked into the federal courthouse to enter his guilty plea with a promise to cooperate with the investigation and testify in future court proceedings.

“Yes….Keep me lifted….”

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