City Contracting Scandal, Bribery, Corruption Charges Hit Atlanta as Unease Spreads

© Branden Camp/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, via Associated Press Mayor Kasim Reed of Atlanta delivering his State of the City address this month. An investigation into charges of bribery involving city…

The brick, adorned with a threatening message, crashed through the window of a prominent contractor’s dining room here in September 2015, apparently sometime between dusk and dawn. For some time, news of the incident failed to reverberate much beyond the home itself.

The same went for the dead rodents that had been simultaneously placed on the doorstep of the contractor, Elvin R. Mitchell Jr., and the message: “ER, keep your mouth shut!!! Shut up.”

But in recent weeks, the brick, the rodents and the threat have become troubling symbols of a widening federal bribery and corruption investigation revolving around the granting of city contracts. The inquiry has already resulted in Mr. Mitchell and a second contractor pleading guilty to federal bribery charges, and it is spreading unease through the civic culture of Atlanta. Municipal contracting here has served a historically important role in the effort to spread wealth to minority businesses, but it has also, at times, been a source of explosive scandal.

None of the evidence has implicated the city’s term-limited Democratic mayor, Kasim Reed, one of the South’s most prominent African-American politicians. But the situation has prompted Mr. Reed to defend his legacy, and to make a forceful, and disarmingly personal, proclamation of innocence.

“I have never taken a bribe,” Mr. Reed, 47, said at a recent news conference at City Hall, where he made public 406 boxes of documents that he said federal investigators had demanded from the city. Mr. Reed, who took office in 2010, added: “Day in and day out I have poured myself into this job. I wanted to be mayor of Atlanta since I was 13. And you think that I would throw my life away for some short-term gratification?”

The brick and the rodents at Mr. Mitchell’s home were detailed in a police report on Sept. 11, 2015. In it, officers responding to a damage-to-property call said that Mr. Mitchell told them the incident had to do with “a federal case.” He also told them that he was going to contact the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which he said would be investigating.

In January, Mr. Mitchell, 63, the owner of several Atlanta-area construction companies, was arraigned on conspiratorial bribery and money laundering charges of paying more than $1 million to win city contracts. As part of a guilty plea, Mr. Mitchell agreed to cooperate with federal investigators.

On Feb. 8, the second contractor, Charles P. Richards Jr., 64, was arraigned on charges of paying $185,000 in bribes. The authorities said Mr. Richards conspired with Mr. Mitchell in the pay-to-play scheme from 2010 to August 2015.

Last week, Mr. Richards also pleaded guilty in federal court and is cooperating with investigators. In both cases, the authorities said, the men gave money to an unidentified individual on the belief that it would get them city contracts.

“It’s a big deal,” said Angelo Fuster, a longtime political consultant who worked for three of Atlanta’s mayors. “And the mechanics of it, the way that this seems to have been developing since — what is it, 2010? — is very unusual.”

City contracting here has long been both a source of civic pride and lingering suspicion. After his election in 1974, the city’s first African-American mayor, Maynard Jackson, sought to combat decades of economic injustice by increasing minority participation in city contracts to more than 35 percent from less than 1 percent.

But high-profile contracting scandals have also resulted in prison terms for several Atlanta politicians and business executives. In 2006, a five-year federal investigation of William C. Campbell, a former mayor who served from 1994 to 2002, ended with a jury finding him not guilty of charges of bribery and racketeering. He was, however, found guilty of tax evasion and sentenced to 30 months in prison.

The targets of the previous investigations were a multicultural group, as are those involved in the current scandal: Mr. Mitchell is black, and Mr. Richards is white.

It is unclear where the evidence will lead, but court documents suggest that investigators have been paying attention to a woman named Mitzi Bickers, a pastor, political consultant and former president of the Atlanta school board.

In January, soon after Mr. Mitchell’s arraignment, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on the threatening attack on his home. In November, the Atlanta police arrested a man named Shandarrick Barnes in the incident. He has been charged with terroristic threats and criminal damage to property.

State records show that Mr. Barnes had business ties with Ms. Bickers, who worked on Mr. Reed’s election campaign and in the city’s human services department from 2010 to 2013.

A subpoena that was discovered among the 406 boxes of City Hall documents showed that federal officials have asked the city to turn over all correspondence to and from Ms. Bickers. Ms. Bickers has not been charged with any crime.

State records show Mr. Barnes spent years as the chief financial officer of the Bickers Group, a political consulting company. And when Ms. Bickers led the Chateau Land Company, she designated Mr. Barnes as the corporation’s secretary.

Click here to read more

Source: The New York Times | RICHARD FAUSSET