UPDATE: Minor edits for style, clarity
by Robin Kemp
E.R. Mitchell, the Atlanta contractor who, along with C.P. Richards, pleaded guilty in the Atlanta City Hall corruption probe, testified Wednesday that he paid multiple cash bribes to Clayton County Sheriff’s Office Chief Chaplain and Chief of Staff Mitzi Bickers in exchange for inside information that got Mitchell’s and Richards’ companies city snow removal, sidewalk, and bridge repair contracts.
Bickers, who has run political campaigns for former Mayor Kasim Reed, Sheriff Victor Hill, and several Clayton County candidates and elected officials, has pleaded not guilty to two counts of conspiracy to commit bribery, three counts of money laundering, four counts of wire fraud, one count of tampering with a witness or informant, and one count of filing a false tax return.
Mitchell told the jury that Bickers’ cut was 7.5% to 15%, that she had told him “that she preferred to be paid in cash to avoid income taxes,” and that he had brought $100,000 cash to her house in a black computer bag, “usually hundred-dollar bills, sometimes 50 or 20 dollar bills.”
On Tuesday, Bickers’ former partner, Diedre Verdier, testified that Mitchell had brought a black bag, which she said “reminded me of an old-fashioned doctor’s bag,” stuffed with $100 bills to Bickers’ Lake Spivey house.
Mitchell testified that he usually would bring the cash to Bickers at her home, first in West End and later at Lake Spivey, or to Emmanuel Baptist Church, and that he had given Bickers cash at his home at least once. According to Mitchell, Bickers was a city employee at the time, which he said was around 2009 or 2010, and that she “was an employee of ours.”
Highest bid, but got the contract
“C.P. Richards submitted the [sidewalk] bid on behalf of our team,” Mitchell told Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Davis. Although Richards’ bid was the highest on a list of seven or eight, he said, the city awarded Richards’ company the annual sidewalk contract.
“Our agreement was that our company would receive 20% of revenue or 20 points based on revenue, and Bickers would receive 7.5%, or 7.5 points on revenue,” Mitchell said.
He also testified that Bickers offered inside information on upcoming bids for bridge repairs months before the requests for proposals were published. By doing so, Mitchell said, his company got several months’ head start on preparing detailed bids that other companies only had days or weeks to get ready.
Follow the money
According to Mitchell, the scheme worked this way:
- The City of Atlanta would pay C.P. Richards Construction for a job, like the sidewalk contract.
- Richards would pay Mitchell’s company, Cascade Building Systems.
- Mitchell would write a check made out to “cash” from Cascade Building Systems to another company he owned, E.R. Mitchell Construction Company.
- Mitchell then would write another check made out to “cash” from that business account.
- Finally, Mitchell would use cash from that transaction to pay Bickers her cut: “That was the agreement between her and me.”
Bickers’ role, according to Mitchell, was to make sure that invoices were paid quickly and to pay off other city employees in connection with Richards’ and Mitchell’s contracts.
Davis asked Mitchell whether, between 2011 and 2015, he understood “what Mitzi Bickers was doing with the money you paid her?”
“Yes,” Mitchell replied. “In addition to keeping some of the money for herself, she told me that she was paying some City of Atlanta officials.”
“Did you understand that to be a bribe?” Davis said.
Michell replied, “Yes.”
Mitchell: Bickers paid off other city employees
Mitchell testified that Bickers had referred to at least three City Hall employees as “our people,” and that Bickers told him she had given money to Engineering Program Manager Cotina Alexander, former Department of Public Works Senior Manager Katrina Parks, and Department of Public Works Administrative Program Manager Rita Braswell.
Alexander, who defense attorneys said they had subpoenaed, reportedly has refused to testify in the case. She has worked for the City of Atlanta for 22 years, according to her bio on the Atlanta Department of Transportation website, “in every area of transportation maintenance, eventually supervising the Department of Public Works Office of Transportation. She also has experience working as an engineer for the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT).” Most recently, Alexander has served as ATLDOT deputy commissioner, in charge of the Office of Transportation Infrastructure Management.
Attorney: Alexander would take the Fifth
After the jury was excused for the day on Wednesday, David Jones, an attorney representing Alexander came to court on short notice. U.S. District Court Judge Steve C. Jones did not swear in the attorney, but asked him to clarify when Alexander had told him that she would invoke her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Specifically, the issue was whether Alexander had decided to take the Fifth before or after the trial began, and whether she had told attorney Jones that she would take the Fifth before or after reporters had called her for comment last week.
The government alleges Alexander used bribe money “to buy money orders and pay off $30,000 in credit card debt,” according to the AJC. Alexander was placed on administrative leave after the AJC broke the story.
Jones said he has represented Alexander for about three years, “not long after the interview with the City of Atlanta attorney” and federal investigators. After questioning by both sides, Judge Jones ruled that he would not order Alexander to come in just to take the Fifth.
Mitchell: Bickers’ cut doubled for snow removal
Other city contracts that Bickers allegedly steered to Mitchell and Richards were even more lucrative–for them and for her.
Those included snow removal, salt and gravel trucking, and repairs to the Martin Luther King, Jr. bridge just outside the federal courthouse and the Park Drive bridge in Piedmont Park.
Mitchell said he got several months’ advance notice of the job and that the Park Drive bridge, which had chunks of spalling that had flaked off the structure, was so far gone that it had to be torn down and rebuilt from scratch.
Just before the snowstorm in 2011, according to Mitchell, “I received a call from Bickers, saying she believed the city was going to declare an emergency and I should expect a call from Katrina Taylor-Parks.” Mitchell testified that he, Taylor-Parks, and Bickers met at City Hall, and that Bickers asked for “approximately 15 percent of the contract amount.” His role was “as a contractor, construction manager, whatever you want to call it.”
Mitchell testified that he based his snow removal rates on “equipment plus driver plus my markups plus Mitzi Bickers’ [15%] markups.” Asked how the city responded to his quote, Mitchell said, “In general, it was positive…I believe one individual had questions or concerns or problems with all the rates that all the contractors had charged.”
Mitchell testified that then-Public Works Commissioner Richard Mendoza and Interim Watershed Management Commissioner Dexter White (who died in December 2014) called a meeting January 11 with the contractors and some project managers at City Hall.
”I spoke to Mitzi Bickers because her roles and responsibilities included troubleshooting and working with city officials,” Mitchell said. “It was our understanding that if anything came up with this contract, we were to talk to her first.”
On January 26, the City of Atlanta paid Cascade Building Systems $1,168,705 for snow removal.
“I would have immediately have Cascade write a check to E.R. Mitchell Construction or Mitzi Bickers,” Mitchell said.
In this instance, Mitchell wrote checks for:
- $25,000 cash that same day (January 26, 2011)
- $15,000 cash the next day (January 27)
- $60,000 cash
- $60,000 cash
- $30,000 cash (February 1, 2011
Those five checks, written over four days, came out to “approximately 15 percent” of what the city had paid Mitchell’s company for snow removal, Mitchell said, adding that the cash went “to Mitzi Bickers.”
Mitchell said he used his share to pay off bills, run his company, and feed his family, and that he would not have gotten the contracts on his own: “I couldn’t have done it without her.”
Mitchell: Bickers paid off “our people” in City Hall
At one point, Mitchell said, things began to turn: “I met with her. She was very upset.”
According to Mitchell, Bickers told him, “‘Now I understand why we’ve been having problems with some of our people down at City Hall giving us strange looks. Cotina Alexander has been holding the money and not giving it to any of our people at the city.'”
Mitchell continued, “There was no denying it at that point. The money I was giving her was not only bribing her but also bribing other city officials….Any money I gave her would be spread around among her and other city officials.”
But Mitchell did not walk away.
“I made a terrible decision at that time, a poor one, but I made it,” he said.
Keep on trucking
When another snow emergency struck in January 2014, Michell said, Bickers upped her cut to 18%.
“Cotina Alexander said, ‘You did a good job last time, could you send some rates?'” he testified. “This time, they wanted spreaders.”
Cascade didn’t have any spreaders, but Mitchell promised to supply five. He quoted a rate based on “equipment cost, driver, associated costs, my markup, Bickers’ markup” of $249 per hour.
“At that point in time, [Bickers] is no longer an employee of the City of Atlanta, and I am free to openly send her information on construction projects and since she’s involved in all our price negotiations with city officials,” Mitchell said. “She is advised of all actions, statements, communications, whether e-mail or, when she was with the city, face to face.”
For the next snowstorm, Mitchell said, Alexander contacted him about delivering “salt, gravel, and some type of mix or something like that.” Alexander e-mailed Mitchell, copying Braswell, on February 10, 2014, authorizing Mitchell to pick up salt in Charleston, S.C. Mitchell testified that the money he paid Bickers was “being spread to city officials.”
Jones then had the jury removed while the defense and government argued over Alexander’s role in the case. Jones said he would take a closer look and return to the issue later, then brought the jury back in.
Mitchell said that he sent an e-mail to Alexander confirming the order: Cascade would pick up 700 tons of salt from International Salt at the Kinder Morgan Terminal in Charleston, then deliver it to the city’s yard on Hill Street, for $195 per ton “and a bad weather surcharge of 20%.” (The city already had paid for the salt itself separately.)
Then, Mitchell confirmed an order from Alexander to pick up 2,100 tons of “89 stone” at $95 per ton. That price, he said, also included “equipment, driver, associated costs, my markup, Mitzi Bickers’ markup.”
Supply and demand
Mitchell had agreed to provide the city with 15 spreaders, 15 service vehicles, 30 dump trucks, 15 loaders, and 15 lowboys during the 2014 snow removal. At the time, Mitchell testified, Cascade only had “five or six” service trucks and had to get the rest from subcontractors.
Another e-mail showed Alexander had asked Mitchell to provide the extra equipment during the second snowstorm. Mitchell said he had forwarded the e-mail to Bickers because “the understanding was that she was to be apprised of all communications [and] rates” and that “we talked on the phone probably daily.”
That additional equipment included loaders and dump trucks, Mitchell said, “because some contractors, instead of spreading, just dumped it in the middle of the street. It had to be scooped up and moved.”
Mitchell said he also was asked to provide a vacuum truck. The rate was $475 per hour or $712.50 for overtime. Cascade had no such truck: “Those were really difficult to find,” he said.
Mitchell invoiced the city for $1,998,175 for six days’ work. The vacuum trucks cost about $250,000. The overtime for the vacuum trucks was $662,000.
In all, Mitchell said, he was paid $5.3 million for snow work in January and February 2014: “I am sure we wouldn’t have gotten it without [Bickers].”
Again, Mitchell outlined how he paid Bickers:
- Cascade Building Systems sent the city an invoice for $322,104 on February 10, 2014.
- The city made an electronic payment to the company’s account at SunTrust on February 13.
- Mitchell wrote two checks, each for $9,500 “cash,” on February 14, one from SunTrust, another from Capital City Bank.
- Mitchell again wrote two checks, each for $9,500 “cash” on February 14 from SunTrust and Capital City Bank.
“I took the cash and gave it to Mitzi Bickers,” Mitchell testified. “These were payments for the work that she did on the snow contract that was in accordance with the 18% agreement….She told me that some of the money went to pay city officials.”
Mitchell added that he “had a conversation with Bickers about staying under the $10,000 limit. I believe banks report any checks cashed for $10,000 and above.” According to Mitchell, that was because Bickers did not want “to draw attention to us and what we were doing.”
C.P. Richards Construction also got the bridge jobs, Mitchell said, because Bickers made sure of it.
“We could not have gotten the project in the first place without her, because of the vagueness of the project description and scope of work coupled with the engineer’s amount,” Mitchell testified.
Although another company wanted the job, he said, “She fought on our behalf to get the MLK Bridge,” and the company had “no problems with [getting] payment.”
The Park Avenue Bridge turned out to be an even bigger payday: “It may have collapsed, it was that bad,” he said. According to Mitchell, the engineer’s assessment had been “erroneous” and the bridge had to be torn down and rebuilt. “It wasn’t political,” he said, “because the bridge was in such bad shape.”
Davis asked Mitchell whether the job had been profitable.
“Very,” Mitchell said.
Court was delayed an hour because a juror was stuck in traffic. Jones said he had a matter to attend to during lunch on Thursday, so the jury would be allowed to leave the courthouse for a two-hour lunch, and that court would run until 5:30 p.m. to make up the time.
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