ATLANTA — The jury in the Mitzi Bickers trial convicted the former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed confidante of bribery, conspiracy and eight other counts including money laundering, wire fraud and tax evasion, but the verdict does not answer all of the questions about corruption in the procurement system of the Atlanta city government.
During the two-week trial in federal court, the city placed Cotena Alexander and Rita Braswell on leave with pay after their names popped up in testimony.
Both will face internal investigations conducted by the city.
The prosecution’s star witness, former contractor E.R. Mitchell, told the jury that Bickers called Alexander and Braswell “our people” at City Hall, and prosecutors argued that Alexander was paid $30,000 to steer contracts to Mitchell.
But Alexander never appeared in court, which was obvious to the jury.
“We all had a lot of questions and were very curious why we didn’t get to hear from her here. We didn’t spend a lot of time speculating, because she’s not on trial,” juror Tonya Dale told Channel 2 investigative reporter Richard Belcher after the verdict Wednesday afternoon.
We learned early in the trial that Bickers’ defense team subpoenaed Alexander in hopes of questioning her about her alleged role as Bickers’ “fixer” inside City Hall, but Alexander notified prosecutors the day before jury selection that she would refuse to testify. She never appeared.
Nonetheless, as early as its opening statement, the prosecution accused Alexander of working on behalf of Bickers to steer contracts to E.R. Mitchell.
Through the testimony of former city Public Works Commissioner Richard Mendoza, prosecutors suggested that Alexander hand-picked Mitchell for more than $5 million in 2014 snow removal work, even though Mitchell had not been preapproved for that emergency work.
The jury heard that and many other references to Alexander, but it did not convict Bickers on the charge of having Alexander tamper with those particular contracts.
Dale told Channel 2 Action News that she and her fellow jurors heard enough to know that Alexander supposedly played an important role in the illegal scheme described in court.
“I think she seems to be a key player, and in our opinion, had she testified or shown some proof that the monies had actually come from Mitzi Bickers, we might have had a different story,” Dale said.
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Asked by Belcher if testimony by the alleged insider might have produced another guilty verdict, Dale responded: “Perhaps.”
Bickers’ attorneys complained repeatedly to Judge Stephen Jones that hearing about Alexander but not getting to question her put the defense at a disadvantage.
Speaking to reporters after a clearly disappointing verdict, lead defense attorney Drew Findling said, “Obviously, it is going to be an issue that is pursued aggressively in an appeal to the 11th Circuit (U.S. Court of Appeals). That you can rest assured.”
Rita Braswell actually testified for the prosecution before E.R. Mitchell testified that Bickers had called Braswell and Cotena Alexander “our guys” at City Hall.
Both are on leave and the subject of internal investigations. The city hasn’t commented on the matter other than releasing the letters notifying Braswell and Alexander of their status.
Alexander’s absence from the courtroom is the only lingering mystery after the trial, the first jury trial since the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Atlanta went public with E.R. Mitchell’s guilty plea in January 2017.
Belcher compiled a list of some of the more obvious questions:
Why did no senior city official question how C.P. Richards’ got a sidewalk contract despite being one of the highest bidders? (Richard’s is Mitchell’s admitted co-conspirator. Both have pleaded guilty to bribery and finished their prison sentences.)
Why was Mitchell paid an excessively high price for 2011 snow removal despite a senior city official questioning his prices?
Why was there no investigation after Mitchell got more than $5 million in 2014 for snow removal work without being on an approved list of contractors?
Why did no one notice that Mitchell was paid $195-a-ton for salt while another company was getting $120-a-ton during that 2014 emergency snow removal work?
The alleged misconduct by Alexander and Braswell dates back at least eight years, and there was no testimony during the trial about alleged misconduct in city purchasing after the FBI confronted E.R. Mitchell in July 2015.
We left messages for both women and have not received a response.
Bickers remains free on bond pending sentencing, which is set for July 12.
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