- By J. Scott Trubey The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Elvin “E.R.” Mitchell Jr., a central figure in the cash-for-contracts scandal that’s gripped Atlanta City Hall, was allegedly approached by federal prosecutors to be an informant years before his admitted involvement in the bribery scheme.
The allegation came Wednesday in open court and after a hearing in Mitchell’s divorce case. Esther Panitch, an attorney for Mitchell’s wife, Marjorie Mitchell, said the feds were in contact with E.R. Mitchell in 2006 about a non-prosecution agreement in exchange for his cooperation in other investigations.
Mitchell is an established figure in government contracting, and his potential involvement with the feds in other cases was not previously known. Mitchell attended Wednesday’s hearing but did not have an opportunity to respond to Panitch’s allegation from the witness stand.
In January, Mitchell was charged and pleaded guilty to conspiring to pay more than $1 million in bribes from 2010 to 2015. Mitchell admitted to making payments to a unnamed person under the belief money would go to one or more city officials with influence over contracting.
As part of his plea, Mitchell agreed to testify against other potential suspects in the ongoing probe. A second contractor pleaded guilty in the scheme in February.
In 2006, Mitchell reached a $1.7 million settlement with the Fulton County Schools over alleged overbilling for construction projects at two county schools, according to school system records. Mitchell agreed to a ban from ever working with the school system.
About that time, Panitch told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, federal prosecutors approached Mitchell about being an informant in undercover cases to avoid prosecution in the Fulton case.
It’s not clear if Mitchell signed the non-prosecution agreement and became an informant at that time. But he was never charged in the matter.
A message left for a spokesman with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Atlanta was not immediately returned.
Mitchell’s divorce attorney, Odis Williams, said after the hearing he had no information about Mitchell’s potential involvement in other federal cases.
Williams said that many of the things Panitch said in court “were hyperbolic or flatly untrue.”
Ownership of companies at issue
A recent AJC and Channel 2 Action News investigation found that the city paid one of Mitchell’s companies, Cascade Building Systems, approximately $7.3 million in emergency contracts during the two 2014 winter storms, and another in 2011.
A draft of the 2006 non-prosecution agreement stipulated that Mitchell could not take on any other contracts through his main businesses for three years, Panitch said.
Panitch said she believes that’s when Mitchell started to create companies in the names of relatives and his wife to obtain government contracts. Cascade, the main company that E.R. Mitchell used to get emergency snow removal work in Atlanta, listed Marjorie Mitchell as a manager and owner in its registration with the city for minority-owned business status.
Panitch has said Marjorie Mitchell had no involvement with the company.
“That appears to be consistent with his inability to put contracts in his own name,” Panitch said after the hearing.
Wednesday’s hearing concerned two matters: a motion by E.R. Mitchell’s attorney to seal records in the case, and a motion by Panitch to hold the contractor in contempt for failing to provide certain financial information.
Williams, E.R. Mitchell’s attorney, sought to seal the case stating that information disclosed in the divorce could be used against his client in the federal case or expose Mitchell to other criminal charges. Fulton County Superior Court Judge Constance Russell denied the motion, stating that Mitchell can invoke his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself.
Mitchell invokes the Fifth
In Wednesday’s hearing, Mitchell repeatedly invoked the Fifth, citing the ongoing federal investigation, in response to questions from Panitch about property transfers involving a former aide to Mayor Kasim Reed named Mitzi Bickers.
Federal prosecutors have subpoenaed records from the city related to Bickers, who was the city’s director of human services from 2010 to 2013, and helped get Reed elected in 2009. Bickers has not been charged nor identified as a suspect in the federal probe.
Mitchell also invoked the Fifth Amendment when asked if he had signed a non-prosecution agreement with the Internal Revenue Service.
Panitch alleged Mitchell and entities tied to him made or borrowed more than $22 million from 2005 to 2014 and that Mitchell now contends he has a few hundred dollars to his name. Panitch said Marjorie Mitchell does not know what happened to that money and should be allowed access to information to try to piece together where the assets went.
In cross-examination Wednesday, Panitch attempted to pierce the corporate veil of Mitchell’s companies. But Russell denied her motion to hold Mitchell in contempt.
Williams said his client is not trying to hide assets.
“He’s made disclosure after disclosure both to the federal government and this case,” he said.