E.R. Mitchell Jr., a prominent construction contractor accused this week of paying bribes for City of Atlanta contracts, was already talking to the FBI in September 2015. Somebody knew about it and wanted him to keep quiet.
Before sunrise, a brick smashed through Mitchell’s window and landed on his living room floor. There was writing on it: “ER, keep your mouth shut!!! Shut up.”
Outside, he found an even more ominous message. Two dead rats lay on his doorstep. Another was left on the hood of his truck.
The incident 16 months ago at Mitchell’s Southwest Atlanta home sheds light on the hidden drama of an explosive corruption case now gripping City Hall. The federal investigation also features as yet unnamed figures with government ties who allegedly helped him rig the city’s system of awarding contracts.
What few details have emerged from federal charges portray a city where some lucrative contracts may have been bought and sold, with Mitchell accused of paying more than $1 million.
“It’s not only terrible, it’s troubling,” said Angelo Fuster, a longtime political operative and communications expert who worked for Mayors Maynard Jackson, Andrew Young and Bill Campbell. “I can only think of a couple times in the last 20 or 30 years that there’s been something that’s been of the magnitude that this seems to be.”
Charging documents filed in U.S. District Court in Atlanta say Mitchell conspired with someone in the construction industry to pay bribes to another unnamed person connected to the city. The documents say Mitchell believed some of the money would go to one or more city officials with influence over government contracts. The scheme allegedly occurred from 2010 to 2015.
That early-morning threat apparently didn’t deter Mitchell, who legal experts say is now poised to become the federal government’s star witness.
So far, no other suspects nor co-conspirators have been identified.
When Atlanta police responded to the thrown brick and the dead rats, he wouldn’t tell them who he thought had done it, according to a police incident report obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News. He said he would call the FBI and let them look into it.
“You only hear about this kind of thing in movies,” said William Perry, head of Georgia Ethics Watchdogs. “For this to happen in real life shows that there are some pretty desperate people trying to keep this quiet. And obviously, it could be people with political futures.”
Mitchell was arraigned Tuesday in U.S. District Court. In the 24-minute hearing, Mitchell pleaded not guilty to the criminal information, or charging sheet, that laid out the alleged bribery scheme.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office said Mitchell is expected to plead guilty before the end of the month. Mitchell posted a $10,000 bond and agreed in his release papers not to have contact with alleged co-defendants and any unindicted co-conspirators.
Authorities allege that in January 2011, Mitchell withdrew at least $70,000 to pay an unnamed person to win a contract. Between Feb. 2 and Feb. 8, Mitchell withdrew $200,000 in cash as payment to win a contract. Another withdrawal of $150,000 for a payment allegedly occurred in February 2014, the court document said.
In April 2014, Mitchell wired $110,000 to an unnamed person to receive a city contract, the allegations state.
For decades Mitchell, 63, has been a fixture in Atlanta’s business and political firmament, with connections reaching all the way to the top. In 2009, he hosted a fundraiser at his office for Kasim Reed in his first run for mayor. Mitchell was a co-chair of a 2011 event where he raised $10,000 for Reed.
Mitchell and his company have contributed more than $7,000 to Reed’s campaigns since 2006, when he was still in the legislature. A spokeswoman for Reed described Mitchell as an acquaintance of the mayor.
Anxiety at City Hall
University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock said the bribery charges have the potential to shake up the next race for mayor, depending on whether any city officials are implicated. If it grows into a full-blown scandal, it could embolden an outsider while scaring off those close to City Hall, he said.
Reed briefly addressed the bribery case Thursday, saying the city and its attorneys have been cooperating with federal investigators and will “let the facts go wherever they go.” The mayor took one question about the case the media after an Invest Atlanta meeting Thursday morning before ending the interview.
“What I’m going to do is I’m going to respect my city attorney because she’s been handling that process,” Reed said. “But let me make something very clear to the people of Atlanta: We have been cooperating and supporting the work of the U.S. Attorney for months.”
A pall hung over City Hall on Thursday, with anxious staffers trying to determine any contact they had with Mitchell. “It’s all everyone is talking about,” one staffer said.
A spokeswoman for Council President Ceasar Mitchell, who is running for mayor, said the councilman declined to comment about the allegations because of the ongoing investigation. Seconds later, she made this request:
“Please let the public know there is zero relationship between E.R. Mitchell and Ceasar Mitchell,” the spokeswoman said.
Deep connections and trouble
E.R. Mitchell is the owner and principal of E.R. Mitchell Company, a contracting firm founded by his father in 1960.
The Mitchell companies are among the best-known and respected minority-owned builders and contractors in the city. E.R. Mitchell Company and its subsidiaries have taken part in major government construction projects for the city, DeKalb and Fulton county school systems, Atlanta schools, the fifth runway at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and the Georgia World Congress Center.
The business is a family enterprise, with E.R. Mitchell Jr. serving as president since 1980 and his sister Cynthia working in program management.
Mitchell’s businesses have been involved in controversy before.
A 2002 AJC investigation found some DeKalb County school board members ignored what was then a strict, decades-long ethics policy by hiring companies that contributed to their election campaigns. Though there were no allegations of illegal activities, one of the contributing contractors was a E.R. Mitchell.
Mitchell’s companies were partners with construction giant Heery International in managing DeKalb County Schools construction projects under a 2007 education SPLOST. The pair were suspended by the school system and later fired, triggering a years-long legal battle, with the contractors alleging false termination and the country schools alleging billing fraud and mismanagement.
Mitchell later settled with the school system and switched sides, working with the schools in their case against Heery. The legal morass ultimately led to the termination of then-Superintendent Crawford Lewis. DeKalb schools and Heery settled the case after protracted litigation and monumental legal fees.
The AJC also reported in 2006, E.R. Mitchell Construction was no longer allowed to bid on Fulton school projects as part of a settlement over disputed charges related to renovations. The compnay also paid $1 million to the system to resolve the matter.
‘I always liked him’
Mitchell lives in a quiet subdivision of largely brick homes off Cascade Road in Southwest Atlanta. H. Michael Harvey said he’s been a neighbor of Mitchell and his family for about 20 years.
Years ago, Harvey and his wife were in a violent wreck near the entrance to their subdivision. Mitchell heard the collision, and the Mitchell family later brought the Harveys dinner during their recovery.
Harvey said the allegations did not change his opinion of Mitchell.
“I’ve always liked him,” he said, “and respected him as a businessman and neighbor.”
Channel 2 Action News Investigative Reporter Jodie Fleischer and AJC Staff Writer Raisa Habersham contributed to this article.