Former Atlanta official gets 14 years in corruption case

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ATLANTA (AP) — A pastor, political operative and former high-ranking Atlanta city official was sentenced Thursday to 14 years in prison after a jury found her guilty of charges stemming from a long-running federal investigation into corruption at City Hall.

U.S. District Judge Steve Jones told Mitzi Bickers that the evidence showed that she was involved in “a deliberate, calculated plan to cheat” the taxpayers of Atlanta over a number of years. In addition to the prison time, he ordered Bickers to pay nearly $3 million in restitution to the city and to serve three years of supervised release once she's out.

Bickers, 56, was the first person to go to trial in the investigation into corruption during the administration of former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. She helped Reed win election and then worked as his director of human services for several years. Prosecutors said she used her influence to funnel roughly $17 million in business to city contractors Elvin “E.R.” Mitchell Jr. and Charles P. Richards Jr. in exchange for more than $2.9 million in bribes for herself and others.

A jury in March found Bickers guilty on charges including money laundering, wire fraud and conspiracy to commit bribery.

Prosecutors had asked Jones to sentence Bickers to serve 17 and a half years in prison. Her lawyers asked for a much lower sentence, pointing to the five years that Mitchell got and the two years Richards got.

Bickers told the judge that what prosecutors said about her was a “mischaracterization.”

“I pray and believe that God is not through with this situation and that you, sir, will see beyond this awful picture that has been painted,” she said.

Her mother, Ethel Bickers, said in court that her daughter “has been the glue that keeps our family and our church together” and that “her absence from the community would be a great loss.”

Bickers' father served alongside Martin Luther King Jr. in the civil rights movement and founded Emmanuel Baptist Church next to an Atlanta housing project, according to a court filing. When her father died in 1998, she took over as pastor of the church.

She also was elected to the Atlanta Board of Education at 26 and held the position for a decade. And she was an effective political operative known for getting voters to turn out.

Defense attorney Drew Findling said prosecutors previously offered to recommend a five-year sentence if she took a plea deal and that she was being punished for going to trial. He has said they plan to appeal.

Prosecutor Jeff Davis said cases like this are difficult because “you have to try and balance an otherwise meaningful and productive life against egregious criminal conduct.” Bickers used the formidable skills that made her so effective in her honest pursuits to commit crimes, he said.

Public corruption convictions must carry harsh penalties, Davis argued, because they “damage the public's faith in its government.”

Jones told Bickers that it's clear that she has a “caring heart” and is “obviously a very smart person.” Referencing the roughly four dozen Bickers supporters in the courtroom, he said he was touched by her community's support.

But he noted that 12 jurors who sat through a weekslong trial found her guilty on nine of 12 counts. He disputed the notion that her sentence was harsher because she went to trial.

Her actions were not accidental, he said, adding that she had a “deliberate plan” to put money in her pocket and in the pockets of the two contractors. Her actions “cast a shadow” over the many honest city employees in Atlanta, he said.

The corruption investigation became public in early 2017 when prosecutors accused Mitchell and Richards of conspiring to pay city officials to get contracts for emergency snow removal, sidewalk maintenance and bridge reconstruction from 2010 to 2015. Over the next several years, a half dozen others were charged, including high-ranking members of Reed’s administration. Reed himself was never charged, but the investigation loomed over his final year in office.

A 2018 indictment against Bickers said she accepted bribes from Mitchell and Richards and failed to disclose that companies she controlled received payments from the pair while she worked for the city. She also did not declare the income to the IRS and falsified tax documents, the indictment said.

The “pay-to-play” scheme continued after Bickers stopped working for the city, prosecutors said. When a January 2014 snowstorm paralyzed Atlanta, she used her influence to secure a multimillion dollar contract for Mitchell’s company, even though it “owned no snow-clearing or other equipment.”

She used the money for big purchases, like a lakefront home, a 2014 GMC Denali SUV and four Yamaha WaveRunners, and spent lavishly on travel and personal expenses, prosecutors said.

Bickers is to be under house arrest and to wear an ankle monitor until the federal Bureau of Prisons summons her to start her sentence, Jones said.