May 27, 2024


Health know-how

Federal indictment: Contractor gave bribes to former Jackson mayor, other city officials

An embattled Atlanta contractor and political mover and shaker faces new bribery charges alleging she showered former Jackson Mayor Tony Yarber and other officials with gifts so they would award her future city contracts.

Mitzi Bickers “hosted parties and paid for food, airline flights, hotels, chauffeured car services, entertainment, fundraisers and campaign services” for the mayor and other city officials, according to an updated indictment filed October 22, and first reported in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Prosecutors included the allegations in an updated indictment filed in Georgia federal court under an existing case. Those charges, to which she has pleaded not guilty, alleges Bickers’ involvement in an Atlanta bribery scheme that has rocked city hall in recent years.

The indictment, which does not cite Yarber by name, also alleges Bickers made purchases, totaling at least $5,000, “with the intent to influence and reward an agent of the City of Jackson, Mississippi government.”

The charges echo allegations against the city and mayor in a federal sexual harassment lawsuit filed in August of 2016, which the Jackson City Council settled for $10,000 a year later. The suit detailed parties Bickers threw for Yarber at which “strippers wearing only body paint greeted them at the door.”

Bickers, who is also pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church, never received portions of the lucrative city contracts she sought, including one to manage the city’s wastewater consent decree, because the Jackson City Council voted them down.

“The whole thing was so smelly,” Ward 1 Councilman Ashby Foote, said Wednesday. “All the connections with the subcontractors made many of us suspicious … it just struck me as a lot of mischief that may be underway and we were paying a lot of money for just oversight … So I’m glad that contract didn’t get passed by the city council and I think that she’s now indicted may prove that our gut instinct that something wasn’t right about the deal was correct.”

When reached by Mississippi Today Wednesday, Yarber declined to comment on the new indictment.

Jackson’s procurement officials initially awarded the multi-million wastewater contract to Los Angeles-based engineering firm, AECOM, with which had Bickers allegedly partnered. Under the contract proposal, the group would have overseen over a half-billion dollars worth of work while receiving millions itself for program management.

Stephanie Coleman, the city’s former Equal Business Opportunity Manager, blew the whistle on the alleged scheme in a federal lawsuit filed in February of 2017.

In a sworn affidavit, Coleman said Bickers visited her in May 2015 and said the mayor had decided to give the wastewater contract to Bickers’ team.

The new indictment alleges Yarber met with Bickers shortly after he was elected “to discuss a city contract.”

“Bickers represented to a public employee that the Mayor promised she would receive a government contract with the City of Jackson and Bickers simply needed to ensure that the paperwork looked good enough to justify the award,” alleges the October 22 indictment against Bickers.

But the paperwork didn’t look good enough for city councilmen to sign off on the deal.

AECOM’s local subcontracting team, dubbed the “Jackson 5,” included a Jackson Redevelopment Authority board member who was later charged with Medicaid fraud, a member of the Jackson Planning Board, a drummer and president of Central Mississippi Blues Society, and an engineer who was at the time employed by the Mississippi Department of Transportation and whose business partner was the brother of Jackson’s then-deputy chief administrative officer.

Yarber admonished his colleagues on the council after they voted down the proposal, suggesting they were ignoring issues of “public health and safety.”

In her 2017 complaint, Coleman also alleged she had been sexually harassed by her direct supervisor, Economic Development Director Jason Goree. Jackson settled that case last month.

In 2015, the FBI interviewed Coleman about Bickers as well as the actions of the former Jackson Public Works Director Kishia Powell, now Atlanta’s Watershed Commissioner. Powell has repeatedly denied having been involved in any contract-steering.

Bickers was also involved in a proposed development deal for a convention center hotel procured by the Jackson Redevelopment Authority. The deal eventually died, but not before “Bickers met with the Mayor and other city officials to discuss a convention center hotel project in Jackson,” as alleged in the indictment.

Bickers helped elect Yarber, donating $14,000 to his campaign, after former Mayor Chokwe Lumumba’s death in February 2014.

She also played a controversial role in the 2014 Republican primary runoff for U.S. Senate, placing robocall in support of former U.S. Senator Thad Cochran.

The Mississippi Conservatives PAC, funded in part by former Gov. Haley Barbour, paid Bickers $44,000 to place the ads, which targeted African-American communities.

Another contractor central to the case in Atlanta also donated $10,000 to Yarber’s initial 2014 mayoral campaign.

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