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Tip for Atlanta regarding background checks: Use Google | Bill Torpy


On May 11, the Jackson (Miss.) Free Press newspaper carried a headline stating: “Kishia Powell: ‘I Don’t Steer’ Contracts.”

Powell was responding to reports in Jackson’s other newspaper that alleged a bid evaluation committee changed scoring sheets to award a sludge hauling contract to a buddy of the town’s mayor.

“Those altered score sheets, obtained by The Clarion-Ledger, illustrate the city’s practice of steering contracts, according to a former evaluator,” the Clarion-Ledger reported.

The one steering the evaluation, according to the newspaper report? Kishia Powell. Although her attorney denies any wrongdoing.

So, 10 days after Powell denies having anything to do with this sludge-hauling hanky-panky, what do you think happens? Atlanta offers her a job to head its perpetually troubled water department.

This, mind you, is the department where employees were not only stealing copper, it’s also the place where an $80,000 backhoe went missing in 2014 and still can’t be found.

In an AJC story Feb. 23, a spokeswoman for Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said the city was not aware of the allegations in Jackson before hiring Powell.

That leads me to wonder: Doesn’t anybody at City Hall use Google?

Late on Friday afternoon, City Hall issued a statement endorsing Powell, at length, and revising its earlier admission that officials didn’t know about the controversy in Jackson.

“The city became aware of the allegations made by a former colleague in Jackson during the hiring and confirmation process, but these allegations — which have never been verified — did not diminish Ms. Powell’s impressive professional record,” Friday’s statement said.

Depending on which statement you believe, the city either didn’t know about the Mississippi mess, or it did know about it and chose to ignore it.

That follows a pattern. A week later, the AJC ran another story detailing how an ex-con named Shandarrick Barnes was hired in 2014, five years after going to the pokey for a heavy-duty racketeering scheme to defraud DeKalb and Cobb county governments. The city didn’t pick that one up, either, even though it was all over the news.

Oh, Barnes is the guy who in 2015, while employed by the city, tossed a brick through the window of a contractor who was singing to the feds concerning alleged corruption in Atlanta’s contracting. He also left dead rats on the guy’s porch.

Again, Google anyone?

The city of Jackson recently became noteworthy in Atlanta because two subjects of the corruption investigation here have ties to government there. That would be E.R. Mitchell Jr., the guy with rats on his front porch, and Mitzi Bickers, an Atlanta pastor, businesswoman and political consultant who helped the mayors — both here and there — win their jobs.

The whole effort has become a game of connect the dots.

Brick-Thrower Barnes and Bickers have been businesses partners, as have Mitchell and Bickers.

Both Mitchell and Bickers were big campaign contributors to Jackson Mayor Tony Yarber. My AJC colleagues Dan Klepal and Scott Trubey recently reported that two of Mitchell’s companies and one tied to Bickers qualified as minority-owned and disadvantaged companies in Jackson. Bickers was also listed as a partner with a firm bidding for a massive contract to manage Jackson’s $400 million sewer upgrade.

Mitchell has pleaded guilty to paying more than $1 million in bribes to have someone help him get Atlanta contracts. Also, the feds here have subpoenaed tons of records connected to Bickers, who was hired by Mayor Reed for a city job after she helped him win in 2009. She has remained elusive for comment and has not been charged with a crime.

In Jackson, the woman who made the allegations to The Clarion-Ledger last year has upped the ante, filing a suit last month alleging that Bickers and Kishia Powell were involved in bid-rigging there.

Stephanie Coleman, the city of Jackson’s former equal business opportunity manager, said she was interviewed by the FBI in November 2015 about such schemes, including questions about Powell, now Atlanta’s watershed commissioner.

Coleman and her lawyer told The AJC and Channel 2 Action News that she was interviewed by the feds months after she was fired by the city of Jackson. She was canned, she says, for blowing the whistle on contracting misconduct.

“I’m not saying that I heard that (Powell) was steering contracts,” Coleman told the AJC and Channel 2, “I’m saying I was in there when she steered contracts.”

Powell’s attorney, Juan Thomas, has denied any wrongdoing by Powell and said she met Bickers only once.

Last month, Reed stood by Powell saying, “You can basically make any claim that you want in a lawsuit in Mississippi.”

I got to thinking about all this Thursday while attending a divorce proceeding at the Fulton County Courthouse.

Esther Panitch, the lawyer representing E.R. Mitchell’s wife, Marjorie, is trying to determine what assets, if any, her client’s soon-to-be-ex-husband has squirrelled away. He has companies in his name, his wife’s and his mother’s. His wife didn’t know about any of this and first figured out something was amiss when a brick crashed through her window.

Panitch demanded that E.R. and his business buddy, Bickers, attend the hearing. They didn’t.

While lingering in the hallway, I overheard reporters Klepal and Trubey talking about how City Hall was not being helpful about releasing documents about Kishia Powell’s hiring. At first, a mayoral spokeswoman said Powell’s background check didn’t need to be released. Then, after being pushed, she finally released an undated version.

Trubey asked when this background check was conducted, and it turns out it was done last week, not last year before she was hired.

Incidentally, last June, the city’s HR director sent the City Council a memo saying a “complete background check including education, professional experience and criminal history” had been completed before Powell was hired.

Or maybe not. The city blames a vendor for not conducting the complete check. The city does say it did do a criminal check last year.

The mayoral spokeswoman, a bit flustered, wrote Trubey: “Ms. Powell came to the City of Atlanta directly from another municipal employer, which required a background check. She started her career at the City of Baltimore, which required a background check. She worked for multiple private employers, all which required background checks.”

Just not so much Atlanta.



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