by Robin Kemp
A federal judge on Thursday denied a motion by Clayton County Sheriff’s Office Chief Chaplain Mitzi Bickers’ legal team to suppress evidence of what federal prosecutors say was potential witness tampering.
Bickers’ trial is set to start Wednesday, March 9. She has been at the center of a years-long bribery and witness tampering investigation related to corruption at Atlanta’s City Hall, where she worked as director of human services under former Mayor Kasim Reed.
The Atlanta City Hall Scandal
In March 2018, a federal grand jury indicted Bickers on conspiracy to commit bribery, allegedly “by soliciting and accepting payments directly and indirectly from [Elvin R.] Mitchell and [Charles P.] Richards and their companies in exchange for her agreement to represent their businesses and to obtain lucrative City of Atlanta contracts for their companies” between 2010 and 2013.
In 2015, Shandarrick Barnes, who from 2004 to 2010 was chief financial officer of one of Bicker’s companies, as well as director of two of her companies registered in Texas, left dead rats on Mitchells’ car and doorstep and threw a brick with the message “E.R. KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT” through Mitchell’s window.
Barnes had been arrested in 2009 and convicted of racketeering, “which included charges of bribery, forgery and stealing more than $300,000,” according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s J. Scott Trubey and Dan Klepal.
Mitchell pleaded guilty to bribery and money laundering in 2017 and was sentenced to five years in prison. In 2020, Judge Steve T. Jones, who is hearing Bickers’ case, knocked one year off Mitchell’s sentence after Mitchell cooperated with federal investigators.
Mitchell also was sentenced to three years’ supervised release and ordered to make restitution of $1,120,535. He was released on July 1, 2020.
Richards pleaded guilty in 2017 and was sentenced to 27 months. He was released from federal prison on May 10, 2019.
Atlanta’s former chief procurement officer, Adam L. Smith, accepted over $30,000 in bribes between 2010 and 2015. Atlanta Business Chronicle reported that “Smith was responsible for all purchasing matters, including the overhaul of the City’s water and sewer projects and the expansion and concessions projects at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport – amounting to billions of dollars in public contracts.” Between 2010 and 2015, Smith accepted over $30,000 in bribes from
Bickers is charged with money laundering, wire fraud, filing a false tax return, and witness tampering. A superseding indictment in October 2018 added “a substantive count of bribery.”
Bickers: “Get this shit nipped in the bud”
On February 23, federal prosecutors filed notice with the court that they intended to introduce new evidence under Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b). That rule says evidence from another alleged crime cannot be used against a defendant to show that person’s character. However, it can be used to show “motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, absence of mistake, or lack of accident.”
In this case, the government alleges that, last August, Bickers had a coworker call a potential witness in the federal bribery case, then took the phone after the person answered: “During the ensuing conversation between the Defendant and the witness, the Defendant requested contact information for a second likely government witness, stated that she wanted to ‘get this shit nipped in the bud’ with her trial date nearing, and suggested that all the witness needed to remember was that a third likely government witness fell into the Defendant’s pool.”
The notice did not state whether the coworker was employed by the Clayton County Sheriff’s Department. However, Bickers has been on Sheriff Victor Hill’s payroll since losing her job at Atlanta City Hall.
According to the notice, the government “intends to introduce testimony of the above-referenced conduct at trial under Rule 404(b) as proof of intent, knowledge, the absence of mistake or accident, and a common plan and scheme with respect to the witness tampering charge and the substantive bribery charge in the superseding indictment, which are contested issues at trial.”
Calling the timing of the motion “highly improper,” Bickers’ attorneys immediately filed a “strong objection” to the government’s motion, telling the court Bickers was only “attempting to locate the contact information of a potential witness so that she could give it to her counsel, as is her constitutional right as a criminal defendant to interview witnesses and effectively present a defense.”
The potential jury pool is set to be called next week. Bickers’ attorneys say the government is trying “to hinder Ms. Bickers’ defense by broadcasting to the public that any attempt to interview witnesses in her case will result in baseless and highly publicized allegations of impropriety. Furthermore, it is highly improper that the government chose to make this public and baseless filing (of which undersigned counsel have already been made aware of media reports stemming from it) just a week before the potential jury pool is due to be summonsed.”
Bicker’s legal team asserted, “It was clear in this report that any contact information was then going to be turned over to her counsel for a witness interview, a fact the government fails to note,” and accused the government of “attempting to paint an innocuous phone call into something sinister by manipulating the report and cherry-picking phrases out of context,” adding that the feds did not mention “that they are well aware of that contradict their characterization of this alleged evidence.”
Bickers has continued to run political campaigns and bringing home a six-figure salary as CCSO’s chief of staff.