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Torpy at Large: Rat-infested corruption and Atlanta’s reputation reboot

On Monday morning, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms asked more than two dozen top officials at City Hall to hand in their resignations.

Bottoms kept in place the existing brain trust when she came to office in January, saying she’d keep the crew she inherited for three months, which would give her time to figure out what was what.

That time is up and such a move is vital because Bottoms must show she is her own person, not the third term of former Mayor Kasim Reed, her political benefactor. Reed helped install her in office (which she appreciates) but also left a city being investigated by the FBI looking into corruption (which she surely doesn’t).

Her action was well-timed.

Just hours later, on Monday afternoon, Shandarrick Barnes, a former city worker, stood before a federal judge and awaited his fate. In 2015, Barnes tossed a brick through the dining room window of E.R. Mitchell Jr., a federal witness who threatened to overturn the illegal gravy train also known as Atlanta city contracting.

Scrawled on the brick was “Shut up ER, keep your mouth shut!!!” Outside the home, someone (Barnes insists it wasn’t him!) scattered dead rats to make sure the message wasn’t lost on E.R.

Barnes was in court this week to be sentenced on a charge of intimidating a witness, a tactic the feds don’t like because it makes their job much harder. And who likes to work harder?

Prosecutors called Barnes’ efforts “mob-like tactics,” although he is more Three Stooges than Goodfellas.

His attorney, Bill Morrison, tried to win sympathy for Barnes, a career criminal, by making it appear that his guy is a mere mutt surrounded by well-groomed thoroughbreds in Atlanta’s corruption game.

The lawyer noted that Barnes “is not a multi-million construction company owner who received millions of dollars of contracts from the city” while laying out at least $1 million in bribes to make it happen. That person would be E.R., who was sent off on a five-year federal vacation.

Morrison continued: “He is not a Georgetown-educated lawyer employed by the city of Atlanta, making over $200,000 a year and accepting bribes.” That would be former city contract procurement director Adam Smith, who was sentenced to 27 months.

“He is not a high-powered political consultant,” said Morrison, “who holds himself out as a minister tending the flock with one hand while taking bribes with the other.” That would be Mitzi Bickers, who was charged last week with conspiracy to commit bribery, money laundering, wire fraud, tampering with a witness or informant, and filing false tax returns.

Bickers, who helped Reed get elected mayor in 2009 during a tight runoff and was then rewarded with a city job, was getting money from E.R. with the idea that she spread it around City Hall, feds say. It apparently worked, since E.R. and another shady contractor got $17 million in contracts. (Who she allegedly passed the bribe money on to — or if she even passed it on — is still a parlor game at City Hall.)

Barnes was a business associate of Bickers, who wanted to also spread her wings and get some government contracts in Jackson, Miss. The feds say Bickers complained to Barnes about E.R. running his mouth and that was going to hurt business. Next thing you know, E.R. is awakened by the sound of breaking glass.

Bickers has pleaded not guilty, has bonded out and has a flock at her church, where she is a minister, rooting for her.

Barnes has a record of burglary, battery, forgery, possession of burglary tools and, finally, a conviction for racketeering in connection with the time he defrauded a local government a few years ago. Despite this, he started working for the city in 2013 when he got out of prison, thanks to Bickers’ influence. Either she was being a good Christian and helping a man get a second (or third or fourth) chance, or she needed a good foot soldier.

Barnes will be locked up for about two years, give or take, when time already served is figured in. He, too, is singing for his lunch with the feds, but his attorney says Barnes doesn’t know a lot of information to give up. Remember, he’s a lowly brick-tossing mope.

While the others were involved in million-dollar governmental fleecing, federal prosecutor Kurt Erskine noted that Barnes’ actions were equally terrible.

“Had Shandarrick Barnes been successful, the City Hall corruption case could have remained in the dark,” he said.

Erskine noted that the government must make an example out of those who would try to thwart investigations. Remember, as I said, without stool pigeons, the wheels of justice would grind even more slowly than they currently do.

Also, Erskine noted during his presentation to the judge that this sort of crime — the brick throwing, the dead rats and the millions of $$$ in corruption — “harms the reputation” of the city, “hurts how others outside of Atlanta view the city” and even creates cynicism.

Atlanta has long been an image-conscious burg with a boosteristic DNA that generates business. Rats and bricks and endemic corruption can undo all the glossy brochures and bubbly civic presentations that Chamber of Commerce types can come up with.

Last week, after Bickers’ indictment, U.S. Attorney BJay Pak gave the city leadership this advice: “The ethics and culture of an organization start from the top. You set the right tone, so when you have repeated instances of corruption, it’s time to look at that culture.”

On Tuesday, Mayor Bottoms was back at her effort to resuscitate city government’s tattered reputation.

The mayor announced a new online site where residents and the media could look up city expenditures, budgets, salaries, contracts and vendors. It’s the new push for transparency that city officials have been talking about — without much action — for years.

Bottoms is calling it “Atlanta’s Open Checkbook.” It’s a good idea. But given the recent level of fraud, one might rethink the name.

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