ATLANTA - A former city employee in Jackson, Mississippi, says when she was interviewed by FBI agents in November 2015, the questions focused heavily on the activities of Atlanta political operative Mitzi Bickers and current Atlanta Watershed Commissioner Kishia Powell, who was then the public works director in Jackson.
"They asked about the connection of Kishia Powell and Mitzi. They asked if I thought that Kishia was trying to steer contracts," said Stephanie Coleman, who was terminated. She's now suing the city for retaliation and sexual harassment.
Part of Coleman's job involved certifying companies for the Jackson's minority business enterprise program. That's how she met Bickers, who'd contributed $15,000 to the mayor's campaign there. Bickers then registered two Mississippi companies right after his election, and won a piece of a lucrative sewer contract.
"She basically told me that the mayor had promised her the consent decree project," recalls Coleman, who attended a dinner meeting Bickers requested. "And I'm thinking to myself, this lady is full of it. She can't be serious."
Bickers then formed a third Mississippi company in 2015, with another subject of the Atlanta bribery case, Keyla Jackson. They went on to win part of a $75 million hotel construction project in downtown Jackson.
"That's the way of the world, you have to pay to play," said Coleman, "They didn't have any experience, they just had connections."
Coleman says Bickers and Jackson weren't the only familiar faces from the Atlanta investigation.
Construction CEO E.R. Mitchell, who has since pleaded guilty in Atlanta's bribery scandal, also formed a Mississippi company in 2015, after donating $10,000 to the Jackson mayor's campaign.
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"He had gotten certified. So I think he was getting lined up to do some things here," said Coleman, adding that she doesn't think Mitchell ever actually obtained a Jackson contract.
Records show by August of 2015, Mitchell was already on the radar of FBI agents in Atlanta.
City of Atlanta emails released in response to open records requests filed by Channel 2 Action News and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution show public works employee Shandarrick Barnes and Mitzi Bickers repeatedly discussed Mississippi companies and payments.
Barnes is also charged with leaving dead rodents in the yard and throwing a threatening brick through E.R. Mitchell's window, warning him to shut his mouth about the Atlanta bribes.
"I started looking at the names and I made a couple phone calls and all these people knew each other. And I said, 'Well yeah, this is all related,'" said Coleman.
Government contracts are typically decided by a selection committee that hears proposals and scores each company; the lowest bidder with the most points wins-- unless someone has their thumb on the scale.
Coleman says she sat on several Jackson committees that were tainted, and she shared that with the FBI in late 2015.
By then the Atlanta bribery investigation was already in full swing.
"It's stunning to me. And I wonder whether Jackson corrupted Atlanta or the other way around," said Coleman's attorney Wilson Carroll, who's been working in and around Jackson politics for 30 years.
"I don't know where it started but it's obviously a very similar situation, and it's very surprising to me," added Carroll.
Hired by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed in May 2016, Atlanta's bribery scandal predates Watershed Commissioner Kishia Powell's time in Atlanta.
But in Coleman's lawsuit, she claims Powell was intimately involved in the contract-steering allegations there: suggesting which companies should win contracts, re-doing votes that didn't go her way, even altering the scoring afterward.
"I'm not saying that I heard that she was steering contracts, I'm saying I was in there when she steered contracts," said Coleman, adding that she believed Powell and Bickers were working together behind the scenes.
Atlanta's mayor says Bickers, who worked on his campaigns and later as a director in his administration, had nothing to do with Powell getting the Atlanta job. However, he's refused to name the people who first recommended her.
"I have made a comment through my attorney, that's it, so get out of my face," said Powell when reporters caught up to her at a public meeting.
In a written statement, Powell's attorney said she has never steered contracts. He added that she has not been interviewed by the FBI. He did confirm that she first interviewed for the Atlanta job in April 2016; her predecessor was not fired until May.
Prosecutors in Atlanta would not confirm whether the Jackson case is related to theirs.
Coleman told Channel 2 she shared everything she knew with investigators and the public, hoping that encourages others in similar positions to do the same.
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