Mitzi Bickers (left) at her federal corruption trial before U.S. District Judge Steven C. Jones, March 14, 2022. Courtroom Artist: Lucy Luckovich

Overview:

Bickers, who has run numerous successful political campaigns, could get up to 30 years in federal prison. Her attorney has said she will appeal.

Sentencing Thursday

Former Clayton County Sheriff’s Department Chief of Staff Mitzi Bickers is scheduled to appear before a a federal judge on Thursday, September 8, when she could get up to 30 years in prison for conspiracy, wire fraud, money laundering, and filing false tax returns in the Atlanta City Hall contract-steering scandal.

Bickers’ sentencing is set to take place at 10 a.m. before U.S. District Judge Steven C. Jones in Courtroom 1907 of the Richard B. Russell Federal Building in Atlanta.

Bickers’ attorney, Drew Findling, has said she plans to appeal to the Eleventh Circuit Court.

A sealed document also was filed on August 24, according to online court records.

Bickers, 56, was convicted of one count of conspiracy to commit bribery, three counts of money laundering, four counts of wire fraud, and one count of making false statements/falsifying tax returns. She was acquitted of one count each of bribery, conspiracy to commit bribery, and witness tampering.

Mitzi Bickers (second from right) leaves the Richard B. Russell Federal Courthouse in Atlanta during her March 2022 corruption trial. Bickers faces up to 30 years. Her attorney says she will appeal. (Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)

According to documents filed by Bickers’ defense team, “On September 1, 2022, counsel for Ms. Bickers received the final disclosed PSR [Presentence Investigation Report]. The probation officer calculated the defendant’s total offense level at Level 40, with a criminal history category of I, resulting in a guideline sentencing range of 292-365 months.”

Under federal sentencing guidelines, “if an atypical aggravating or mitigating
circumstance exists, the court may ‘depart’ from the guideline range. That is, the judge may sentence the offender above or below the range. When departing, the judge must state in writing the reason for the departure.”

The First Steps Act makes provisions for reducing a federal inmate’s sentence by 54 days per year sentenced in return for good behavior.

Bickers’ legal team argues the proposed sentence is too harsh, citing her long history of running political campaigns and presenting 63 character-reference letters filed with the sentencing memorandum.

Personal, political, civic bio

That memorandum describes Bickers’ life history, as a child born out of wedlock whose parents married when she was 15; a gifted musician who became drum major and played 16 instruments in high school; who grew up watching her father, Rev. Benjamin Weldon Bickers, give his blessings to candidates for political office; who got her start in paid political campaigning for Rev. Jesse Jackson’s political campaign; who, at 26, won election to the Atlanta School Board as the youngest person ever to hold that seat.

In that capacity, over the course of a decade, Bickers got an education about the world of contracting and public funds. “Under her leadership, every school in her district was renovated,” her attorneys wrote. “Her [sic] and other School Board members successfully passed two referendums and one SPLOST referendum to funnel taxes towards education funding.”

She then ran for Fulton County Commission chair, lost, and “[i]n 2009, she worked as a political strategist for [Atlanta] Mayor Kasim Reed’s campaign, where Reed won by just over 700 votes. In the wake of the success, the former executive directors of the Georgia Democratic party called Ms. Bickers ‘the most well known and well-respected’ political operative in the state when it comes to turning out the vote. In 2010, she worked on Roy Barnes’ gubernatorial campaign. She strategized for [Clayton County] Sheriff Victor Hill’s 2012 Clayton County win. Also in 2012, she helped Judge Melynee Leftridge win a seat in State Court. She helped elect Fulton County Superior Court Judge Craig Schwall in 2014. That same year, she went to Mississippi and helped Republican Thad Cochran get re-elected to the United States Senate. Bickers also played a pivotal role in educating her community and getting out the vote for President [Barack] Obama’s first Presidential campaign. Ms. Bickers’ contributions to the church and the political sphere have been so widely known that in 2012, the Georgia House passed a resolution [sponsored by Rep. Keisha Waites, D-60] praising Ms. Bickers for her ‘efficient, effective, unselfish, and dedicated public service and many contributions to the State of Georgia.'”

“Hypotheticals”

The memorandum also argues that Bickers was “publicly (and without her consent) outed as a gay woman, leading to unwanted media attention surrounding her personal life, her family and her church” during her run for Fulton County Commission. At the time, Bickers had told a meeting of the Stonewall Democrats, a gay political group, “It is tough as a gay woman to run as a gay candidate. It’s tough for a black woman to run as a gay candidate, particularly for a black female who’s a preacher at a Southern Baptist church.” According to a September 26, 2003 article by the Southern Voice‘s Ryan Lee, “two days later in an interview with Southern Voice, Bickers denied that she came out as gay during the Stonewall meeting. Instead, Bickers said she was discussing how a gay black candidate would fare among African-American voters in south Fulton County.”

According to Lee, “In discussing her plans to expand the domestic partner benefits legislation passed by the Fulton commission in July to include a variety of families, Bickers signaled she would like to go off the record during the public meeting without asking reporters at the session if they agreed to her condition. Bickers then said people ask her why she won’t run as a gay candidate. Bickers also explained that if a black candidate came out as gay, some African-American voters would likely drop their support.’

“‘I did not come out to a group,’ she said. ‘What I was giving were hypotheticals and trying to get people to understand that we live in a homophobic society.'”

Bickers told the Stonewall Democrats that she would lose Black voters to former Fulton County Commissioner Karen Webster Parks if she ran as an openly gay candidate. The Stonewall Democrats ultimately endorsed Bickers.

During the trial, Bickers’ former partner, Diedre Verdier, testified that Bickers tried to get her to open businesses in her and her children’s names, and that, at the time, Bickers also had two businesses with her then-ex, Shadreka Poole: “This is something she does with people she dates.” Pirouette Companies, which does political consulting, is exclusively in the name of Bickers’ current wife, Keyla Jackson. The federal indictment alleged Bickers had to resign from the City of Atlanta after her ties to the company were made public in 2013.

“A public servant”

The sentencing memorandum also pointed out Bickers’ history of community service as a possible mitigating factor: “Ms. Bickers is, at her core, a public servant. The support, both tangible and intangible, she has provided to her community over the course of her lifetime has been immeasurable.”

The defense added, “The most important thing in her life is her family—her mother, Ethel Bickers; her wife, Keyla Jackson; and her son, Emmanuel,” whom she adopted and who suffers from lupus.

In sum, “Ms. Bickers respectfully requests that her sentence be considered in light of her storied contributions not only to Southwest Atlanta but to the State of Georgia and the political sphere of the South; particularly as it involves politicians of color and issues that disproportionately affect the African-American community.”

The defense included dozens of letters testifying to Bickers’ character:

Clayton connections

Clayton County officials who sent Jones testimonials in support of Bickers include Clayton County Sheriff’s Office Maj. Brandon Criss (who did not mention his association with CCSO as a member of Sheriff Victor Hill’s command staff or with the security detail assigned to Clayton County Commissioners Alieka Anderson, Felicia Franklin, and Gail Hambrick), Clayton County District 3 Commissioner Felicia Franklin, State Rep. Sandra Scott (D-76), State Sen. Gail Davenport (D-44), and former Clayton County School Board candidate Dr. Monica Hooker.

Criss: “Despite the current case”

Clayton County Sheriff’s Office Major Brandon Criss wrote a letter to U.S. Northern District Court of Georgia Judge Steven C. Jones, asking leniency in sentencing for former CCSO Chief of Staff Mitzi Bickers. Criss did not mention his employment with CCSO, where his bosses included Bickers and suspended Sheriff Victor Hill. Hill faces federal trial in October for allegedly strapping four pretrial detainees to restraint chairs as punishment. Criss, along with other CCSO command staff, is serving as a security detail to Hill-allied Commissioners Alieka Anderson and Felicia Franklin, as well as Wade Starr ally Gail Hambrick. Franklin also wrote a letter seeking leniency for Bickers. (Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)

Criss wrote, “I was troubled and surprised to hear about this case as [Bickers] has always been an upstanding person and citizen….I have known Pastor Bickers for about a year in a half. During this short time, I have grown to love, respect, and appreciate her. Pastor Bickers is one of the most loving and caring persons I have ever met. I have seen Pastor Bickers time after time assist those in need, even when it’s not asked. I have had the opportunity to attend and visit Pastor Bickers’ Church, Emmanuel Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. While there, I was welcomed and greeted with love. Pastor Bickers’ modern approach to preaching the word of God kept me engaged. This approached not only worked for me, but the congregation knew the word of God as well. I am a true believer that the more the world knows about God, the safer the world will be. Pastor Bickers is a pillar and a servant within the Atlanta community and is teaching/spreading the word of God daily. Over the last year in a half, I have seen Pastor Bickers endure through life with this case hanging over her head. After further review, I see that this case was pending since October 2018. Over the last 4 years, Pastor Bickers has had to endure life with this case pending, causing a tremendous amount of stress, restless nights, and fear….Despite the current case, I still believe Pastor Mitzi Bickers to be an honorable individual, valuable member of the community, and an amazing human being.”

The Clayton Crescent filed an Open Records Request for Bickers’ personnel file with CCSO. Under “previous employment,” her October 2, 2016 application to the Sheriff’s Department listed only Emmanuel Baptist Church—not her resignation from Atlanta City Hall in May 2013 after she failed to report outside income from Pirouette Companies, her wife’s political consulting business. Nor did it list the political consulting business itself, which had worked on Hill’s campaign. At the time, she was applying for a corrections officer position.

Image from Mitzi Bickers’ application for a corrections officer job with the Clayton County Sheriff’s Department. Bickers had been Sheriff Victor Hill’s campaign consultant and was forced to resign as Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s director of human services after she failed to report outside income from her political consulting companies. Bickers also had worked for Reed’s campaign. In May, Bickers was convicted on nine of 12 federal counts related to steering contracts, bribery, and tax evasion. After testimony by government witness E. R. Mitchell, two more Atlanta City Hall employees, Cotina Alexander and Rita Braswell, were placed on administrative leave, then fired.

Franklin: “A sound counsel to me”

Clayton County District 3 Commissioner Felicia Franklin (left) wrote a letter to U.S. Northern District of Georgia Judge Steven C. Jones, seeking a lesser sentence for former CCSO Chief of Staff Mitzi Bickers. Franklin has allied herself with Sheriff Victor Hill, who also faces federal charges next month. Hill. who hired Bickers after she was forced to resign from Atlanta City Hall over failing to disclose her campaign consulting income, has donated to Franklin’s campaign, while Franklin and Hill have campaigned for District 1 Commissioner Alieka Anderson. Anderson’s campaign paid thousands to Pirouette Companies, Bicker’s wife’s company, for campaign consulting. (Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)

Franklin wrote, “I am writing this letter on behalf of Mitzi Bickers, whom I have had the opportunity to know and work with over the years. Prior to deciding to work with Ms. Bickers, I did an extensive inquiry among previous clients and associates regarding her reputation and work ethic. Everyone I personally spoke with confirmed that Ms. Bickers is an amazingly talented, loyal and smart individual whom you could count on. I also learned that Ms. Bickers is extremely caring and compassionate. Since working with Ms. Bickers over the past few years, I can personally confirm all of the above statements regarding her character to be true. Ms. Bickers means so much to so many and has since become family to me as she was there during the most difficult time of my life during the loss of my mother. She has also been a sound counsel to me, as I have worked to navigate through this extremely difficult public servant environment. I truly pray that you will consider the importance of the presence of such an amazing person, the character and public work of Ms. Bickers during your upcoming process.”

Scott: “Great strength and vision”

State Rep. Sandra Scott

Scott wrote, “I am pleased to write this letter in support of Rev. Mitzi Bickers, a person I’ve known for over 10 years. During that time and to the present, I can attest to the fact that she is compassionate, kind and generous. A woman of great strength and vision, someone who has walked and talked with people in need of financial assistance, spiritual inspiration, emotional stability and physical stamina on a regular basis, Ms. Bickers demonstrates her willingness to feed the hungry, provide shelter for the homeless and counseling for the mentally and emotional unstable. Rev. Bickers is a caring daughter for her 80 year old mother, wonderful mother to her son Emanuel and great servant to her members at Emanuel Baptist Church in Atlanta. Those aforementioned reasons are why I’m honored to support Rev. Mitzi Bickers.”

Davenport: “Good character and integrity”

State Sen. Gail Davenport

Davenport wrote, “I am writing this letter on behalf of Rev. Mitzi Bickers, to attest to her good character and integrity, which I attribute to the values instilled in her by her parents, Rev. & Mrs. Bickers, who nurtured and reared her in a good Christian home. I have known Rev. Bickers for 16 years, and in that time, I have found her to be honest, self-motivated, a hard worker, always respectful of herself and others. She is caring, kind, and shows compassion for everyone. During that time, she demonstrated a good work ethic, and her desire and ability to be a good follower and team player, as well as leader. She has a deep commitment to her family, friends and the church. Rev. Bickers’ parents made sure she attended church, Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, sang in the choir and played the piano and organ at her church. She participated in many extra-curricular activities in the community and at school, and possesses an exemplary educational background, graduating with honors from high school and Spelman College. I sincerely believe Rev. Bickers is a person who demonstrates through her words and her deeds that she’s willing to help others in any way that she can, and that she will always contribute greatly to the community and society. Therefore, I ask for leniency for Rev. Bickers.”

Sources have told The Clayton Crescent that Davenport allegedly sent a letter to Clayton County ministers, asking them for donations for Bickers’ legal expenses. The Clayton Crescent has not seen this letter and has asked Davenport for a copy. We will update with any response.

Hooker: “Reverse the mantra of being poor”

Monica Hooker, who ran against Jasmine Bowles for Clayton County School Board.

Hooker’s letter read in part: “There were times when I was supposed to be teaching her the positive aspects of higher education and all life has to offer, but she actually taught me. She taught me that one needs only to look for and be grateful for some of life’s daily small wonders in order to be happy and attract the right things, but to make sure to keep my elderly advisors who paved the way for those moments of happiness celebrated and connected to the community. I experienced her overcoming adversity in so many ways that should have kept her from being a solid caretaker, impactful pastor of her church, and providing outreach to those surviving in one of the most economically stricken areas in the metro area of Atlanta. I continuously saw the resilience in Mitzi to educate and set others forth on a path to reverse the mantra of being poor in Atlanta and not let past conceptions and stereotypes determine one’s future. Mitzi is the type of woman who would give and have given the shirt off her back so that others do not have to suffer from a lack of need.”

Friends, relatives, customers, colleagues

Other notables who sent in letters asking for leniency include talk show host Dr. Rashad Richey, Henry County Commissioner Dometrice “Dee” Clemmons, Atlanta City Councilman Michael Julian Bond, Ivory Lee Young Sr. (father of the late Atlanta City Councilman Ivory Lee Young, Jr.), as well as several of Bickers’ family members and parishoners, including her wife and mother. They praised her charitable works and said her family would face severe difficulty in her absence.

Jackson detailed Bickers' role as head of the family:

"Mitzi’s son Emmanuel has Lupus, an autoimmune disease, that has caused him to be sick most of his life," Jackson wrote. "Lupus has no cure but is managed through drugs and treatment. Emmanuel’s lupus is acute. His level of pain is intense and causes severe anxiety and panic attacks. He is often hospitalized for inflammation around his heart cavity, and difficulty with his lungs and kidneys. Mitzi also, helps her 79 years old mother co-parent her 15-year-old adopted brother. Mitzi helps provide transportation for his daily activities and is the disciplinarian in his life. Mitzi is her mother’s only biological child and is the primary caretaker for her aging mother."

Bicker's mother told the judge, "Mitzi has always been a very loving, considerate, caring, and kind daughter. She is always eager to help not just her family but people she meets almost daily who need spiritual guidance and counseling. Her father, the late Dr. Benjamin Weldon Bickers, who pastored for almost fifty years in the city of Atlanta, and I who was a Juvenile Probation Officer in Fulton County instilled values in Mitzi as a child to always lend a helping hand if possible and to love all people." She added, "I pray wholeheartedly that you will be compassionate and show leniency to my child, who is a loving wife, mother, daughter, sister, cousin, niece, and Bishop to the Emmanuel Baptist Church family. I ask that you consider her good service to the community, her diligent spirit to work in ministry, and her passion to fight for the least, lost and the left out when embarking on sentencing for my child."

The government's response

On Wednesday, the prosecution filed its response to Bickers' sentencing memorandum, detailing how the proposed sentence was calculated. Those were based on the dollar amounts of restitution Bickers will be required to make, the fact that she was in a high-level or sensitive decision-making position as Atlanta's director of human services, her leadership role in the bribery conspiracy, and grouping of the bribery and money laundering counts:

Because Bickers was a leader in the scheme, the government argues, she should get a tougher sentence: "Bickers was the primary recruiter of participants – both willing and unknowing. She brought the bribery scheme to Mitchell and gave him instructions to accomplish the bribery scheme. Bickers convinced her girlfriends, Deidra Haynes and Shedreka Poole, to establish companies like Chateau Land Company and open joint bank accounts so that she could deposit bribe proceeds across several banks and accounts. After Bickers became involved with Keyla Jackson, Jackson changed the name of her dance company, added Bickers to the company’s bank account, and Bickers used the Pirouette Companies and its bank accounts to deposit bribe proceeds from [contractor E.R.] Mitchell. Bickers also 'spread' the bribe proceeds 'around the City' to effectuate the award of contracts to Mitchell and [C.P.] Richards, despite their bids being high."

The government emphasized that Bickers was running the show as "both the planner and ultimate decision-maker, telling contractor E.R. Mitchell which projects to bid on and giving both Mitchell and Richards inside information so they could win those bids. Bickers demanded up-front payment in cash or a percentage of the contracts as her cut, "and Mitchell testified that the numbers in his and Richards’s bids were inflated by the amounts demanded by Bickers. Bickers also directed Mitchell to pay her in cash, and she told Mitchell, Haynes, and Poole they could not make large cash deposits to avoid bank reporting requirements. Mitchell testified that he was making so many cash withdrawals for Bickers that he started to feel 'like a drug dealer or something.'"

Bickers also "exercised considerable control" over Richards: "Not only did Bickers demand a percentage of the contracts awarded to Mitchell and Richards and instruct Mitchell how to pay her to avoid detection, but she required Mitchell to keep her involved even once the contracts were awarded. Mitchell testified that he was supposed to keep Bickers apprised of everything he did with the City, so he forwarded his emails to her, blind copied her on emails, printed emails to show her, and spoke with her on the phone 'probably daily.' Even the City believed that Bickers had some form of control over Mitchell – as Rita Braswell testified, Public Works employees knew that they could reach Mitchell through Bickers."

Because "Bickers’s leadership is established by her superior knowledge of the mechanics of her scheme and everyone else’s reliance on her," according to the government's sentencing memorandum, a three-level enhancement is warranted:

"Bickers told [Mitchell] throughout the scheme that she was using the proceeds for herself and to pay other City officials. Mitchell had no role in directly paying these City officials – he relied on what Bickers told him. Mitchell and Richards relied on what Bickers told them about which contracts to bid on and what prices the City was willing to pay. Haynes and Poole relied on what Bickers told them about deposits into their bank accounts and how their companies would be used. Ultimately, the scheme could not have been effectuated without Bickers’ leadership, organization, and control over the flow of information. "

The government argues that "a common bribery scheme between Bickers, Mitchell, and Richards, and the funds from that scheme are the basis of the money laundering counts. Bickers’s purchases were a continuance of her overall bribery scheme. All three purchases were made using her Bickers Group bank accounts, which Bickers used to avoid the appearance that funds were going directly to her or were for a legitimate business purpose. And, the jet skis and cars were part of an overall effort to ‘wine and dine’ public officials and exert her influence at numerous parties at her lake house. The jury’s verdict supports this grouping – despite finding Bickers not guilty of bribery in 2014, the jury concluded that she committed money laundering in 2014. And, both offenses involve harm to societal interests."

In addition, the government told the court, "Like the bribery scheme, Bickers directed and managed others in laundering the bribe proceeds. Specifically, in April 2014, Bickers instructed Mitchell to deposit funds into her personal savings account, her Bickers Group bank account, and the Pirouette account by writing out the deposit instructions, and then she accompanied him to the bank to oversee the deposit of funds. A month later, after she organized $110,000 in criminal proceeds being deposited in the Bickers Group account, she purchased the GMC Denali and two wave runners using checks drawn on the Bickers Group. She later purchased two more wave runners using the Bickers Group. Her leadership in the bribery scheme is intertwined with the money laundering offense, and the same enhancement should be applied."

The government attached documents tracing the deposits and transfers in the bribery scheme:

"Kingdom benefits"

Rev. Mitzi Bickers preaching at Emmanuel Baptist Church, Sunday, September 4, 2022. (Facebook screen grab)

On Sunday, Bickers preached her final sermon at Emmanuel Baptist before the sentencing. She said she had asked God, "What should I say to my church?....Lord, I need a word for my church. And then the Lord spoke to me, prophet, yesterday, as I was just looking out over the greens. He said, 'It's not what you would say to them but it's what I have to say to you.'...I said, 'OK, God, 'and then I said 'Now, Lord, my question has changed, not about what I say to the people, what do you say to me?'

"And I didn't hear from God for a minute. And then I said 'Well, God, what would you have me to do?' And I pondered, and I thought about it for a minute. 'Lord, what would you have me to do?', the Holy Spirit guided me to say. Then I hear from God, and he says, 'If you abide in Me, and my word abide in you'—that's the part He wants meaning that's the part He wants to give to you, the message—'if you abide in Me and my word abides in you, you can ask anything in My name.'"

She then quoted John 15 to the congregation, alluding to loyalty, good works, and unjust persecution.

"If the world hates me'—and it does—," Bickers interjected, "'know that it has hated me before it hated you..'"

She namechecked District 10 Atlanta City Councilwoman Andrea Boone, "my bestie," for distributing food. (Boone also sent in a letter asking for sentencing leniency.)

"The question comes: How will you handle fruitfulness? Will you remain humble?" Bickers asked. "I don't view my obedience to God and my kingdom benefits as something that's wrong or illegal. But I do know that, for everything that God has given to me, I give back to Him."

Bickers, whose Lake Spivey home, vehicles, and waverunners were seized as part of the case, alluded to losing material possessions.

"You can stop not wanting people that walk on your floor, 'cause it ain't your floor, it's God's floor," she said. "You can stop wanting people to not sit on your sofa, 'cause it ain't your sofa. It is God's sofa. You can stop wanting people to go into a certain room, 'cause it ain't your room, it's God's. 'Cause everything that He gives to me, I give back to Him. And when you gove back to God, 'I don't want everybody riding in my car'—It ain't your car!"

Her voice quavering, Bickers continued, "It ain't my house. It's just where God let me live. It belongs...it belongs to...it belongs to Him."

"It ain't all about me, it ain't all about Emmanuel, it ain't all about Keyla," she said. "It's because—and even if you look at me cross-eyed, you don't understand. You may never understand. 'Cause God didn't tell it to you. He told it to me."

While Anytime Bail Bonding, Inc. has challenged the federal government for possession of the Lake Spivey house, Bickers did score one small earthly redemption: the feds returned her 1964 Cadillac DeVille.


WATCH: Bickers' September 4, 2022 birthday sermon at Emmanuel Baptist Church


Robin Kemp

Robin Kemp is executive editor and CEO of The Clayton Crescent, which she founded in 2020. She has worked for Gambit, CNN, The Weather Channel, Clayton News, Henry Herald, and numerous freelance outlets....

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