Hotel proposal on table despite bribery scandal ties
The Jackson Redevelopment Authority is working on plans to develop a hotel across the street from the Jackson Convention Complex. A large entrance to the Jackson Convention Center is located on Lamar Street. The Jackson Redevelopment Authority is working on plans to develop a hotel across the street.(Photo: Joe Ellis/The Clarion-Ledger, Joe Ellis/The Clarion-Ledger, Jo)Buy Photo
While the Jackson Redevelopment Authority continues negotiating a convention center hotel proposal involving Atlanta businesswoman Mitzi Bickers, federal investigators are scouring her records as they investigate a bribery scandal inside Atlanta City Hall. Bickers a political operative who helped both Jackson Mayor Tony Yarber get elected and U.S. Senator Thad Cochran get reelected formed Mississippi Developers in June 2015. Shortly thereafter, the JRA chose to pursue a proposal by Bickers’ company, which teamed with Engineering Design Technologies, to construct a $75.5 million hotel across from the Jackson Convention Complex on Pascagoula Street. The team received a notice to proceed in November and officials confirmed at a JRA meeting Wednesday that the project is moving forward normally. The deal does not require the JRA or the city to put up funds but would release the JRA-owned property where the hotel is to be built to EDT and Bickers.
Bickers donated $14,000 to Yarber’s campaign. A federal lawsuit filed earlier this month by a former employee alleges Bickers stuck around in Jackson after he won the special election in an attempt to obtain contracts with the city. Roughly a month after Yarber took office, she registered her Georgia consulting firm The Bickers Group in Mississippi. Bickers previously worked for Atlanta contractor E.R. Mitchell, the first subject in a cash-for-contracts scheme gripping Atlanta city government.
Mitchell donated $10,000 to Yarber’s campaign before the 2014 election. Federal agents charged him in January with conspiracy, alleging he paid more than $1 million in bribes in exchange for government contracts with Atlanta beginning in 2010, the year Bickers took a job in Atlanta City Hall. He pleaded guilty.
“What happened in Atlanta is not going to be allowed to prevent Jackson from moving forward in an effort to grow its tax base, in an effort to increase its level of independence, an effort to make it possible to provide services to the city of Jackson, where these services have dissipated, where these services no longer exist,” JRA Chairman McKinley Alexander said Tuesday. “We don’t intend to let one individual or a group of individuals who have no standing in the city of Jackson to prevent that development.”
E.R. Mitchell Company, LLC was registered in Mississippi and included on Jackson’s list of Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) certified companies in 2015. Mitchell’s wife, Marjorie Mitchell, is listed as the owner for Cascade Building Systems LLC, which was also on Jackson’s MBE list, though Marjorie Mitchell claims her husband used her name without her knowledge, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. Documents produced publicly in conjunction with the Atlanta investigation show federal agents subpoenaed the city of Atlanta for records pertaining to Bickers and Keyla Jackson, who is listed with the Mississippi secretary of state’s office as the organizer for Mississippi Developers. Bickers did not return phone calls to The Clarion-Ledger.
EDT President Fred Fatemi said he hasn’t been able to get in touch with Bickers. She doesn’t answer her phone, and her email is no longer working, he said. Fatemi told JRA members Wednesday that he has not replaced or removed anyone on the original proposal. He told The Clarion-Ledger that if Mississippi Developers drops off the proposal, EDT would have to find a new partner. Yarber told The Clarion-Ledger he trusts JRA will conduct the RFP process for the convention center hotel with the same standards the city uses. Even though Yarber and Bickers are friends, he said Wednesday, “She has not received a contract with my signature on it.”
Former city employee Stephanie Coleman made several contract-steering allegations in her federal suit against the city filed Feb. 2. Yarber told The Clarion-Ledger Wednesday no evidence has been produced to justify these kinds of claims, which have been made throughout his administration.
“It gets old. It’s frustrating,” he said. Yarber, who is running for reelection in a few months, said he has never been questioned by the FBI or other law enforcement officials. The man arrested for throwing a brick through Mitchell’s window with “Shut up ER, keep your mouth shut!” written on it and scattering Mitchell’s yard with dead rats back in 2015, Shandarrick Barnes, was previously employed by The Bickers Group.
According to emails, Bickers and Barnes formed a now-dissolved music company in Mississippi in August 2014 called Korah Music Group LLC. Barnes also worked for the city of Atlanta, and a city email he sent to Bickers and Jackson’s Natalie Readus includes an attachment showing a wire transfer of $4,500 from The Bickers Group to Readus. Readus owns a local business consulting firm called NCM Consulting LLC. Readus did communications for Yarber’s mayoral campaign and consulted Bickers as she attempted to form businesses locally after Yarber won. Readus said The Bickers Group employed get out the vote efforts in the Ward 6 Jackson City Council race and her firm handled the payroll for the services, which is what the $4,500 payment was for. Another wire transfer record shows Bickers transferred a $5,000 campaign donation to Jackson City Councilman Tyrone Hendrix’s PAC, Friends of Tyrone Hendrix, in June 2014, when Hendrix ran for the council position Yarber left vacant.
Hendrix staunchly opposed a wastewater contract Yarber’s administration recommended the city award to engineering firm AECOM, whose initial proposal included Bickers, according to the recent federal lawsuit.
“She contributed to my campaign, but I have never voted for any items relating to Ms. Bickers. As a matter of fact, I voted ‘No’ on the item rumored to have involved her because I did not believe it was in the city’s best interest. Furthermore, I have been one of the leading members on the Jackson City Council in creating policies that prevent shady contracts and improve government transparency,” Hendrix said in a written statement Tuesday evening.
Hendrix actually wrote an ordinance to require that city contractors provide the city a list of subcontractors, what work they’ll do and how much they’ll be paid, information not previously required. He announced last week after being named Mississippi Association of Educators’ executive director that he will not run for reelection.
Alexander compared Bickers’ potentially compromised involvement in the EDT hotel proposal to President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who resigned Monday amid allegations of impropriety. Alexander suggested the EDT proposal isn’t about Bickers, “no more so than the Trump presidency is about Flynn.”
“There comes a time where some players, you have to let go because they’re detrimental to the team,” Alexander said, following up with, “I’m not saying that’s the case.”
Because EDT/Mississippi Developers claims to have its own financing in place, Alexander said the city would not have to provide any funds or bonding authority for the project, and therefore JRA doesn’t have to get city approval to move forward. Alexander said JRA has notified the city that it has chosen the EDT/Bickers proposal.
“Since JRA is a separate and autonomous organization as it relates to the city of Jackson, the city has no input nor influence over the authority’s procurement and/or RFP selection process,” Jackson Chief Administrative Officer Marshand Crisler said in an emailed statement.
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- ^ hotel across from the Jackson Convention Complex on Pascagoula Street (www.clarionledger.com)
- ^ registered her Georgia consulting firm The Bickers Group (corp.sos.ms.gov)
- ^ RELATED: JRA moves forward on convention center hotel (www.clarionledger.com)
- ^ The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported (www.myajc.com)
- ^ several contract-steering allegations (www.clarionledger.com)
- ^ The Bickers Group (bickersgroup.com)
- ^ Hendrix actually wrote an ordinance (www.clarionledger.com)
- ^ He announced last week (www.clarionledger.com)