Kelvin Walton lied under oath, spied on his boss and snitched to authorities.
Despite that incredible background, Walton is a key cooperating witness for prosecutors attempting to take down DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis in a trial that began last week.
Walton, DeKalb’s former purchasing director, wore a wire and used a tiny pen camera to secretly record months of discussions with Ellis about campaign contributions and county contractors.
Some of those recordings will likely be played for a jury considering criminal accusations that Ellis shook down contractors for donations during his 2012 re-election campaign. Ellis has denied using his power as the leader of a 713,000-person county for political benefit.
It’s unclear how damaging Walton’s recordings are, but an investigator wrote in legal filings that they include conversations in which Ellis allegedly ordered government employees to “dry up” and stop giving county contracts to companies that didn’t make donations.
Ellis’ attorneys responded that their review of about 1,600 recordings showed he didn’t care whether vendors contributed or not, but he did get upset when they wouldn’t return his calls.
“People who know me know that I would never do anything wrong, and I haven’t done anything wrong in this instance,” Ellis said in a December 2013 interview on WAOK-AM. “We’re looking forward to full vindication. … There’s a dark cloud that remains over DeKalb County until that day that I return to office.”
Neither Ellis, his defense attorneys or prosecutors attorneys have discussed the case in recent months because of a judge’s gag order. Walton’s attorney, Art Leach, declined to comment.
But court hearings and documents indicate that Walton will be a crucial witness when he’s called to testify.
Ellis’ lawyers will likely attack Walton as a turncoat who sold out his boss to avoid facing charges himself for his admission that he gave untruthful testimony to a special grand jury.
Prosecutors will try to use Ellis’ own voice on the recordings obtained by Walton to outweigh his lack of credibility.
“Walton can be a liar, but the recordings are what they are. The recordings speak for themselves,” said Bob Wilson, an attorney for a landscaper in a lawsuit involving Walton. “He could testify and even be impeached, but a juror could say, ‘We saw the video and we find Ellis guilty.’”
Walton admitted lying to a special grand jury after initially saying he didn’t solicit work from the landscaper, Paul Champion. While Champion had a tree removal contract with the county, he cut down trees for Walton at his house and a rental property without getting paid, Wilson said. Champion’s lawsuit seeks payment for more than $888,000 in submitted invoices that weren’t paid for clearing county land.
DeKalb County District Attorney Robert James confronted Walton about his lie and gave him a choice.
“Either he was going to be on a witness list and be forthcoming about what was going on, or we were going to look at whether or not we were going to charge him with not being truthful to the grand jury,” James said during a January hearing, according to a court transcript.
Soon after those discussions, Walton started wearing a wire to gather dirt on Ellis. He also reported to prosecutors about sensitive meetings with Ellis.
An investigator’s affidavit for a search warrant of Ellis’ home and office relied heavily on Walton’s information:
- Walton, called a “confidential source,” confirmed with a biosolids company that Ellis had asked them for $25,000, which is the basis of the bribery charge against Ellis.
- Ellis allegedly directed DeKalb County to stop using Power & Energy Services for a generator servicing contract worth up to $250,000 after the company declined to give to Ellis’ campaign.
- Ellis said he had “a real problem” with a construction company that didn’t feel comfortable giving political contributions.
- Ellis told Walton to “just dry them up,” referring to a county contractor, National Property Institute, that had won a $1 million contract to rehab foreclosed homes and didn’t donate to Ellis.
When Walton began working for prosecutors in May 2012, he took three polygraph tests and was asked whether he had ever solicited money from a DeKalb vendor or received anything of value to award a contract to a vendor. Walton didn’t pass any of the tests, according to court motions filed by Ellis’ lawyers in November.
“You failed the [expletive] out of this test,” an unidentified polygraph examiner told Walton, according to the motions. “This is by far the worst set of charts I have seen in a couple of months. … Give me Ray Charles, he could read them.”
Walton said he wanted to help the district attorney.
“You don’t want to help the D.A.; you want to help yourself,” the motion said the examiner replied.
Also during the yearlong special grand jury investigation, Ellis’ former secretary, Nina Hall, testified that Walton gave her money that she believed came from two county contractors.
Both Walton and Hall were suspended with pay in April by Interim DeKalb CEO Lee May. Neither has been criminally charged. Ellis has also been suspended since shortly after he was indicted in June 2013.
Taxpayers are funding their annual salaries of $153,00 for Walton, $75,800 for Hall and $150,000 for Ellis.