DeKalb County CEO’s Corruption Trial!


Company: County money went away

Updated: 4:40 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2014  |  Posted: 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2014

By Rhonda Cook and Mark Niesse – The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

4:25 p.m. — An Austell company stopped getting calls to service county-owned generators soon after telling suspended DeKalb Chief Operating Officer Burrell Ellis the business would not contribute to his 2012 re-election campaign, a witness testified Tuesday.

Eneida Robles, who at the time worked for Power and Energy Services, had taken three calls in 2012 from Ellis trying to reach one of the business’ owners to ask for money for his re-election race.

Robles said she told him each time “we could not contribute to his campaign” and he became angry. She testified that Ellis said he would contact the county’s purchasing office the company did not want to service DeKalb.

Soon the calls to service DeKalb County generators stopped, Robles testified.

“They told us we couldn’t service DeKalb County until further notice,” Robles said. “I knew our service people were not going out to any annuals (yearly inspections).” Court is in recess until Wednesday morning.

3:50 p.m. — A former employee of an Austell company described in court the tense conversation she had with suspended DeKalb County Chief Operating Officer Burrell Ellis when she told him the business would not contribute to his 2012 re-election campaign.

The contract Power and Energy Services had with DeKalb County to service generators was relatively new and she feared she would lose her job at the small business after Ellis threatened to withhold business.

Eneida Robles testified that she took three calls from Ellis, asking to speak with one of the company owners. Each time she told Ellis co-owner Brandon Cummings was out of the office on a service call, as were her instructions. She had been told calls from Ellis should be treated as a solicitation.

When the third call from Ellis came a few days after the first two, Robles said she checked with her boss before giving Ellis a response to his request to speak to Cummings about a campaign contribution.

“When I got back on the phone, I told him that at this time we were not interested in his services, in providing campaign funds, that we could not contribute to his campaign,” she testified. “He was pretty angry with the fact that he couldn’t get Brandon on the phone. He told me ‘if you don’t want to service DeKalb County then I will contact the purchasing manager over there.’ When I said again we could not contribute, he got more angry. The tone was not a good tone.”

Minutes later, a call came from the head of DeKalb’s purchasing office, Kelvin Walton, she testified.

“I was pretty much worried about my job because I thought I had cost them the contract,” Robles testified.

2:38 p.m. — The first three witnesses called in the trial of suspended DeKalb County Chief Executive Officer Burrell Ellis offered jurors a quick tutorial on government operations and campaign finance reporting but their testimony didn’t get t o the heart of the corruption case.

A member of the special purpose grand jury that discovered the alleged corruption testified that the 23 members of the panel were assembled first to look at the Department of Watershed Management but their charge was they could examine other county agencies.

Jimmy Davis,the first witness in the trial that could last six weeks, mostly read from the court order that created the 23-person special grand jury, which completed its work in January 2013, and he responded to questions such as how often the grand jury met.

Davis was quickly followed by the head of DeKalb’s elections and voter registration office and then an investigator with the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, also known at the State Ethics Commission, both to take about the mechanics and requirements of campaign reporting.

None of the three — Davis, Maxine Daniels with the county Office of Voter Registration and Elections and Ethics Commissioner investigator Bethany Whetzel — were asked about the charges of extortion, criminal attempt to commit extortion, bribery and perjury, against Ellis.

Daniels testified the outcome of elections in 2008 and 2012 when Ellis won the vote for DeKalb CEO.

Whetzel explained information contained on Ellis’ campaign disclosure reports.

12:07 p.m. — There will be no evidence any vendor lost a contract because they didn’t contribute to the 2012 re-election campaign of suspended DeKalb County Chief Executive Officer Burrell Ellis, one of his defense attorneys said in opening statements in just-started corruption trial.

Defense attorney Dwight Thomas said Ellis didn’t have the authority to revoke contracts of more than $50,000 and once jurors hear secretly recorded conversations in their entirely — rather than just the snippet prosecutors played in their opening statement — they will understand that Ellis was not threatening anyone.

He was angry, however, that some vendors did not return his phone calls, Thomas said.

“He (Ellis) will say they don’t have to give (to his campaign) but they can’t be not returning phone calls.,” Thomas said. “They have to show respect for the office.”

11:35 a.m. — One of the attorneys defending suspended CEO Burrell Ellis told jurors they will see he did nothing to personally enrich his bank account or that he took kickbacks from vendors with DeKalb County contracts.

Defense attorney Dwight Thomas said the vendor records prosecutors say Ellis broke the law to get were available to any citizen, just for the asking.

“There will not be one single piece of evidence that Burrell Ellis asked for a bribe or solicited a bribe,” Thomas said. “There will be no evidence Burrell Ellis willfully lied to a special purpose grand jury….There is no evidence Chief Executive Officer Burrell Ellis took, stole or skimmed any political funds from any campaign.”

Thomas said Ellis at all times “acted within the power and the scope and the responsibilities” of the CEO’s office.

But assistant district attorney Lawanda Hodges, before wrapping up her 38-minute opening statement, played a brief clip from a recording of Ellis telling the county employee over contracts to cut off a vendor who refused to contribute to Ellis’ 2012 re-election campaign, or to “dry him up.”

Hodges said Ellis is guilty of theft by extortion, criminal attempt to commit extortion, bribery and perjury.

10:59 a.m. — A DeKalb County prosecutor told jurors power, punishment and perjury were at the core of the case against former DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis.

Assistant District Attorney Lawanda Hodges said Ellis used his power over an appointed agency head to get a list of vendors and phone numbers to use for soliciting campaign contributions.

He also tried to use that power over vendors to raise money for his 2012 re-election effort and then he threatened to pull lucrative work from companies that didn’t pay up.

Ellis was relentless, even after vendors said “no” and even after vendors said they were no longer interested in doing business with DeKalb, Hodges said.

And when asked before a special purpose grand jury about those threats, he lied, Hodges said.

10:09 a.m. — Even before the jury was brought in for opening statements Tuesday the defense team for suspended DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis suffered two losses.

DeKalb Superior Court Judge Courtney Johnson rejected defense attorney Craig Gillen’s efforts to show prosecutors may have tampered with a witness. Through his questions Gillen focused on assistant district attorney Lawanda Hodges’ email to subpoenaed witness Nina Hall in which the prosecutor included questions and proposed answers that Hodges said came from numerous prep sessions with Hall, a one-time Ellis aide.

Then the judge said prosecutors could use some recordings of Ellis talking about contracts in their opening statement.

9:37 a.m. – Suspended DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis, with his wife sitting behind him and surrounded by his attorneys, is getting his day in court.

Fifteen months after he was first indicted, opening statements in his corruption trial are to begin Tuesday with 12 black women, two black men and two white women — 12 jurors and four alternates — seated to decide if Ellis committed extortion and bribery to advance his political career.

Opening statements, scheduled to begin at 9 a.m., were delayed, however, because all the jurors had not arrived at court. In the meanwhile, the judge heard from attorneys any outstanding motions.

The first issue was whether to quash a subpoena for Nina Hall, a former top aide to Ellis. Hall is expected to decline to answer questions out of concern for self-incrimination unless she is granted immunity.

Prosecutors, led by DeKalb District Attorney Robert James, say the man who once ran DeKalb government and oversaw its $1.2 billion annual budget also strong-armed county vendors into giving him campaign cash.They say they will show Ellis illegally mixed county business with his 2012 re-election campaign by threatening county contractors unless they donated.

“The evidence will not show that Ellis is simply a ‘heavy-handed campaigner,’ but will show that he is an extortionist,” wrote Deputy Chief Assistant District Attorney Leonora Grant in one of the hundreds documents unsealed on Tuesday.

Ellis’ defenders are expected to counter that while Ellis was aggressive in raising campaign funds — $1.5 million — he never linked support for his re-election with winning lucrative county business.

But previously sealed pre-trial rulings will limit Ellis top-tier defense team.

Superior Court Judge Courtney Johnson ruled previously that Ellis can’t claim he was set up and his attorneys can’t ask witnesses if they thought an alleged victim of Ellis’ was racist. Johnson also decided that jurors can hear about vendors not included in the indictment who Ellis hit up for campaign contributions.

For complete coverage, visit MyAJC.com.

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