A corruption scandal is swirling through the corridors of Atlanta City Hall, causing its denizens to become circumspect.
“Everybody has their heads down at City Hall,” said a long-timer, adding, “This won’t be a Groundhog Day where anybody sticks their head up.”
Last week, politically connected contractor and serial briber Elvin “E.R.” Mitchell Jr. pleaded guilty to passing $1 million to an unnamed somebody at City Hall to secure construction contracts.
The payoffs obviously worked because he continued doing so for five years, ending in August 2015. I mean, E.R. might be a crook but he’s no idiot: You don’t keep shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes for five years if they’re not getting the job done.
And so the case lends itself to mystery because Mitchell’s plea agreement says he was paying off “a public official in a sensitive position.”
Who that official is — be it a high-level city employee or someone elected — and whether that official was spreading the money around to others are questions widely discussed by the folks keeping their heads low.
The specter of impending trouble comes at an inconvenient time for Mayor Kasim Reed who, on Groundhog Day, will give his last State of the City address, a speech where he announces some big initiatives and ticks off a list of successes he keeps ready on the tip of his tongue.
But despite his successes, he has always worried some corruption scandal might erupt on his watch and tarnish the legacy he has been so busy burnishing.
The scandal initially caught the public’s attention a couple of weeks ago when the feds threw out the round number of One Million Dollars. But the case really took off when it came out that in September 2015 someone tossed a paving brick through E.R. Mitchell’s window. On the brick was scrawled, “Shut Up ER. Keep your mouth shut!!!”
What gave the intimidation tactic a nice, creepy, Mafia-styled omertà touch was that the culprit left dead rats on E.R.’s porch and on the hood of his truck.
Sadly, the rodents died in vain: E.R. has kept singing to the feds.
And apparently so has the brick-throwing rat man, Shandarrick L. Barnes, who was arrested three months ago. “Mr. Barnes did cooperate with agents and confessed the crime,” an investigator wrote on his arrest warrant. How much he is singing? To be determined.
But Barnes’ appearance in this saga has left reporters peeling away layers of a really stinky onion.
Barnes is a fellow, authorities say, with “an extensive criminal record.” He was sentenced to 10 years in 2010 for his role in a bail-bonding racketeering scheme in DeKalb County. At the time, he explained his motivation to WSB-TV. “A, it was simple and easy and, B, greed gets the best of us.”
Prior to his stint in the slammer, Barnes was listed as chief financial officer from 2004 to 2010 for a public relations company owned by Mitzi Bickers.
(OK readers, please get your score card to keep track of the following.)
Bickers is kind of a jane-of-all trades in the Atlanta political scene: Former Atlanta school board member, businesswoman, campaign consultant, get-out-the-vote maven and pastor.
Bickers worked as a vice president of operations at E.R. Mitchell Co., one of Mitchell’s contracting companies. And she also bought property from him in recent years.
Bickers is also credited with helping make it possible for Reed to have given all these State of the City addresses. In the 2009 mayoral election, Reed finished 10 percentage points behind Mary Norwood but neither hit a majority. In the runoff, an effort was made to get out the vote on the city’s largely black southwest side, and that was Bickers’ wheelhouse.
Hello, Mayor-elect Reed! He won by just 714 votes out of more than 84,000 cast.
Bickers’ clutch campaign work did not go unnoticed. She was rewarded with a job as human services director until 2013, when Channel 2 Action News discovered she did not properly disclose money she earned from her consulting business while working for City Hall. (Interestingly, Brick Thrower Barnes, after getting released from prison on the racketeering charges, also got a gig with the city in the office of solid waste.)
Bickers has not been named in connection with the bribery scheme and has not said anything publicly since her name came up, despite numerous calls.
And Hizzoner, who is not implicated in this, cannot cut a ribbon or make an appearance without some pushy newsperson sticking a microphone in his face and asking about the funny business.
Bickers, in an ethics filing, reported she “reports directly to the Mayor.”
Wrong, Reed told reporters. “The ethics document is incorrect. She was not a direct report to my office,” he said. “She did report to the chief of staff.”
He added that only the chief of staff and chief operating officer report directly to him, a statement that surprises all those other “non-reports” at City Hall who are routinely called to his office to get chewed out.
The mayor also noted that “Rev. Bickers was not in the operational area,” apparently as a way of noting that she couldn’t have anything to do with contracts.
And in a note of candor, he added, “She was in the human services area because she had worked on my political campaign for mayor (italics mine) and she was a reverend in the community.”
The city, I may add, had been improperly denying Open Records requests from the media and withholding information about E.R. Mitchell’s city contracts, claiming they are related to the ongoing investigation.
But, after getting some letters from attorneys for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 pointing out the law, city officials have now come to their senses and say they will end the stonewalling sometime next week.
Some 1.3 million pages of records will be released. Transparency wins out. And there will surely be lots to talk about in the upcoming months during the next election season.