The dead rats littering contractor Elvin “E.R.” Mitchell Jr.’s property, and the brick thrown through his window, were not violent acts of a lone wolf trying to silence a star witness in the Atlanta City Hall bribery investigation.
Federal prosecutors now say it was all part of a conspiracy.
An Aug. 28 bond hearing revealed that prosecutors think former city employee Shandarrick Barnes tried to intimidate Mitchell in concert with others who are “targets” of the federal bribery investigation. Prosecutors have not named those targets.
Mitchell has admitted to paying more than $1 million to an accomplice from 2010 to 2015, under belief that the person shared some of the cash with influential officials at City Hall who could deliver contracts. The identity of that accomplice has also not been revealed.
Barnes has been charged with five crimes, including at least three serious felonies: conspiracy to harass a federal witness, intimidation against a federal witness, and intent to retaliate against a person providing truthful information to law enforcement.
Once considered a bit player in the investigation, Barnes now looks like he could be pivotal to the government’s case — especially if one of his co-conspirators delivered bribes at City Hall.
“The government is really going after this guy,” said criminal defense attorney Joshua Lowther, who is not associated with the case. They “gave him the full load of every possible charge that could come out of this.”
Barnes faces a maximum of more than 50 years in prison, although sentencing guidelines would likely dictate a much shorter term. He has pleaded not guilty and is being held without bail.
The government has already induced the cooperation of Mitchell and a second contractor, Charles P. Richards Jr., who has admitted to providing at least $185,000 to an unnamed go-between for city contracts. Both have pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery and await sentencing. Mitchell has also admitted to conspiring to launder money.
Another figure linked to the investigation is the Rev. Mitzi Bickers, a former City Hall official and political operative who has been the subject of two federal subpoenas: one delivered to City Hall; and one the other to Clayton County, where she currently works as a chaplain for Sheriff Victor Hill.
Bickers has not been charged with any crimes, and has declined interview requests.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has previously identified numerous business and financial ties among Mitchell, Bickers and Barnes.
At Barnes’ bond hearing Aug. 28, the government drew a tighter timeline around Mitchell’s contacts with his unnamed co-conspirators than was previously known.
Vandalism followed interviews with feds
Mitchell’s decision to cooperate with federal prosecutors appears to have led to the pre-dawn vandalism at his southwest Atlanta home in September 2015, according to court testimony.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Kurt Erskine said at Barnes’ hearing that agents from the FBI and IRS confronted Mitchell in July 2015 with evidence that he paid bribes and evaded taxes. Mitchell then told unnamed associates about the encounter, and said he intended to cooperate with the government, according to Erskine.
Mitchell cut off contact with those associates the next month, and received increasingly threatening messages afterward, Erskine said.
Mitchell gave detailed accounts of the bribery scheme in interviews with federal agents on Sept. 2 and Sept. 8, 2015, according to Erskine.
On Sept. 11, the brick came crashing into Mitchell’s living room window with a warning to “Shut Up” written in chalk. “ER Keep Your Mouth Shut!!!” the brick said.
Barnes told federal investigators he was “livid” because Mitchell “was causing him to lose work and opportunities” to make money, Erskine said in court.
Barnes, a felon, was working at the time for the city’s public works department making less than $30,000 a year. But, like Mitchell, he also had extensive ties to Bickers, and her companies.
Barnes served as chief financial officer of The Bickers Group, a public relations firm, from 2004 to 2010, according to corporate records. He also was listed as secretary for Chateau Land Company, of which Bickers was the chief financial officer in 2007 and 2008, according to documents reviewed by the AJC.
Mitchell, Bickers and Chateau were defendants in a lawsuit when the company defaulted on real estate loans issued in 2008 and 2009. The suit appears to have been settled out of court in 2014.
Bickers, once an executive in a Mitchell construction company, was a reference for Barnes on his application for a city job immediately after he got out of prison for defrauding Cobb and DeKalb counties of more than $300,000, the AJC previously reported.
Deep financial ties
The AJC reported in July that Mitchell and Bickers had a financial relationship that coincided with the time frame of the bribery scheme.
Mitchell transferred at least $1.6 million to bank accounts associated with Bickers from 2013 to 2015, just after Bickers left her job as director of human relations in the Reed administration, according to bank records obtained by the AJC. It’s unknown if Mitchell and Bickers have had any financial dealings since then.
But the transfers uncovered by the AJC ended in August 2015 — the same month prosecutors said Mitchell cut off ties with associates connected to the bribery scheme.
The payments to the pastor — 80 in all — typically happened from one of Mitchell’s many construction company accounts to one of three firms related to Bickers. Two of the checks were marked “Govt Relations.”
The last known transfer was a $30,000 check dated Aug. 6, 2015, according to the bank records. It occurred one day before Richards admitted in his guilty plea to making a $30,000 bribe payment. Bank records show Mitchell deposited a $30,000 check from Richards on Aug. 7, 2015.
The bank records also show a transfer from E.R. Mitchell Construction Co. to a business led by Bickers, matching the date and amount of another bribe payment Mitchell admitted to making: a $110,000 wire transfer on April 1, 2014.
And there are indications that the government has been keenly interested in the sources of Bickers’ income.
In December, Bickers’ legal team asked the pastor for documentation of every bank deposit from 2011-2015 to “identify proper taxable income,” according to an email that ended up in Bickers’ public email account in Clayton County.
“We are at a critical time in responding to the government,” the email said. “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.”
Bickers’ attorney, Carl Lietz, did not respond to messages seeking comment.
After the bond hearing, defense attorney Bill Morrison said Barnes’ anger at Mitchell had “more to do with matters in Mississippi.” He declined to elaborate.
The AJC has reviewed records showing Barnes helped Bickers with several business ventures in Jackson, Miss.
Bickers formed Jackson-based companies in 2014 and 2015, and sought certified status as a minority business to enhance her bids for city contracts. She was also a large donor and aided former Jackson Mayor Tony Yarber’s successful 2014 mayoral bid.
Barnes acted as a trusted confidant to Bickers during that time, helping her lease office space in Mississippi, book hotel rooms and air travel, wire money and incorporate at least three companies there, according to records reviewed by the AJC.
Mitchell also incorporated and sought minority business status with the city of Jackson about the same time.
A sexual harassment suit against Yarber by a former contracting official alleges Bickers believed she deserved city contracts because she helped Yarber get elected. The pending suit also alleges that were other attempts to steer contracts to politically favored companies.