For most of her adult life, Mitzi Bickers’ public persona has been with a white clerical collar around her neck while she ministered to people in her church, in jails or at funerals.
On Thursday, Rev. Bickers wore handcuffs and leg irons under a gray pantsuit to a first appearance in federal court, after an 11-count indictment was unsealed that charged her with conspiracy to commit bribery, money laundering, wire fraud, tampering with a witness or informant, and filing false tax returns.
The indictment is a stunning fall for the daughter of a celebrated minister who was boyhood friends with Martin Luther King Jr., and who at one time was the youngest member of the Atlanta Board of Education. It is also the latest in the ongoing federal investigation of corruption at Atlanta City Hall during former Mayor Kasim Reed’s administration.
Federal prosecutors allege that Bickers, 51, accepted more than $2 million from 2010 to 2014 in exchange for steering $17 million of city work to two construction contractors who have already pleaded guilty.
Richard Hendrix, one of Bickers’ defense attorneys, declined to comment as he left the courtroom. Kevin Ross, a well-known attorney and political consultant who said he attended the hearing to support Bickers as a friend, also declined to comment. Bickers pleaded not guilty and was released on a $50,000 bond.
In addition to being a minister, Bickers is a go-to political consultant who helped Reed become mayor with an extensive get-out-the-vote effort in his paper-thin victory over Mary Norwood in 2009. She then worked as Reed’s director of human services for three years, from 2010-13 — a position for which Reed said she was qualified because of her career in ministry.
She has been a subject of the investigation since at least August 2016, when she was named in a subpoena asking for her emails and work product at City Hall. Prosecutors also sent a subpoena to Clayton County, where she works as a chaplain for Sheriff Victor Hill.
The indictment says Bickers steered the contracts to companies owned by Elvin “E.R.” Mitchell Jr. and Charles P. Richards Jr. by using considerable influence at City Hall, both when she was a city department head and after she resigned in a cloud of controversy over undisclosed income, which is part of the indictment.
And Bickers allegedly spent the proceeds from the bribery scheme on a lavish lifestyle that included a $775,000 lakefront home in Jonesboro, a 2014 luxury GMC Acadia Denali that cost $46,000; four WaveRunner jet skis for a combined $45,000; and a 1964 Cadillac DeVille of unknown value. The indictment says those purchases were her attempt at “money laundering,” and are now subject to forfeiture.
As Bickers appeared in court, federal agents were hauling away the jet skis, classic car and other items from her home allegedly purchased with the bribe payments.
The indictment doesn’t say who at City Hall approved contracts for Mitchell and Richards, or if any other city official accepted bribes. But it makes a passing reference to other city officials’ potential involvement by saying Bickers helped secure the contracts through “the bribery of public officials.”
All of Bickers’ spending documented in the indictment amounts to $600,000, leaving $1.4 million unaccounted for.
Newly minted U.S. Attorney Byung J. “BJay” Pak made it clear at a Thursday press conference that the investigation is far from over and hinted prosecutors know who the next targets are. He urged anyone involved in the scheme to come forward now in exchange for leniency. And he said that offer has an expiration date.
“To those employees who may have taken cash, gratuity or other items of value from the individual named in this indictment … there is a very small window of opportunity for you to help yourself in accepting full responsibility,” Pak said. “Our investigation and prosecution of this matter is continuing and we will continue with or without you.
“Your time is now.”
Joshua Lowther, an Atlanta criminal defense attorney not involved with the case, said the charges previously filed were relatively vague in terms of specific criminal acts, undoubtedly so that prosecutors didn’t reveal all that they knew.
“I think they’re putting everything on the table here,” Lowther said. “The two conspiracy counts are excruciatingly detailed. If you think they only have limited details because Mitzi Bickers isn’t cooperating and you are banking on the fact Mitzi Bickers isn’t cooperating, think again.
‘They know a lot more.”
Adam Smith, the city’s former chief procurement officer, has pleaded guilty to accepting at least $40,000 in bribes and has been sentenced to prison. But the facts outlined by prosecutors in that case are separate from what they’ve built against Mitchell, Richards and Bickers, according to Pak.
Tracking the money
Much of the criminal activity described in the indictment has been previously reported in investigative work by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The AJC reported in February 2017 that Mitchell’s Cascade Building Systems was paid $5.2 million by the city for emergency snow removal work during the 2014 ice storm, charging an overtime rate of $442 an hour for each of 20 plows with front-end loaders — about $200 an hour more than price quotes provided by three other companies that performed work for the city during the storm.
Cascade billed the city for more than 1,000 hours of overtime with that equipment, the AJC’s investigation found.
The AJC also reported that Mitchell related companies transferred $1.6 million to companies under Bickers control from 2013-15.
Prosecutors used charts to show the flow of money from Mitchell and Richards to Bickers, and then how Bickers spent it.
“It’s important to track the money because it tells you where the money came from, the circumstances in how the money was deposited – it shows you motive and intent,” Pak said.
According to the indictment, from Jan. 1 through June 30 of 2014, Mitchell sent $483,773 to Bickers in cash deposits and another $943,325 in checks or wire transfers.
Just in the three-week period from March 7, 2014, to April 1, 2014, the indictment says Mitchell wrote Bickers eight checks totalling $584,000; he transferred $300,000 into Bickers’ controlled accounts; and made two cash withdraws of $100,000 each. Those withdraws correspond with $100,000 deposits made into Bickers’ accounts on the same day.
“What’s alleged in the indictment is just a representative sample of some of the transactions,” Pak said. “It is not a dollar-for-dollar accounting.”
A pastor’s ‘love offering’
Prosecutors said the bribery conspiracy began with the most mundane of city work: sidewalk repair.
Beginning in 2010, Mitchell and Richards funneled money to Bickers in a complicated series of transactions that included checks, wire transfers and cash withdrawals.
The AJC previously reported that Richards first won city sidewalk work in 2009. Over the next six years, city officials amended Richards’ contract 20 times, including 14 times in which it added new work and new funding.
Mitchell’s company was Richards’ minority partner on some of the work.
While five- and six-figure payments flowed into Bickers’ bank accounts during the scheme, prosecutors allege that she wasn’t reporting any of it to the IRS. In 2011, the indictment says Bickers reported $57,986 from her city salary, under-reporting her income by some $600,000. The IRS gave her a $3,924 tax refund that year.
The indictment also alleges that Bickers attempted to interfere with the federal investigation, and was behind vandalism at Mitchell’s home that made headlines.
In September of 2015, as Mitchell began cooperating with federal agents, a brick came crashing through his home window with a message for him to keep his mouth shut. Dead rats were also left on his property.
Authorities later identified the assailant as Shandarrick Barnes, an associate of Mitchell and Bickers and a former city of Atlanta employee. Barnes pleaded guilty to trying to intimidate a federal witness in connection with the brick-throwing incident. Barnes has agreed to cooperate as well and is scheduled to be sentenced to federal prison on Monday.
Bickers has repeatedly declined to answer questions from the media. But an AJC reporter went to a service at her Emmanuel Baptist Church in January 2017, and observed the small congregation give donations in two baskets — one for the church and one for Bickers’ personally.
Bickers thanked her followers for both, but ended the service on a personal note: “I want to say thank you for giving to my offering, to the pastor’s love offering. You make it possible for me to do the things I need to do — taking care of my personal responsibilities and, I got a teenager, so, Amen.”