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Acrimony paves way to Ellis’ day in court

The explosive, increasingly personal accusations between suspended DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis and District Attorney Robert James will get their first airing Thursday morning in the closely watched political corruption case.

Ellis says James is mounting a politically motivated prosecution and breaking the law doing it. In response, James has accused Ellis of lodging “baseless allegations” designed to damage him politically and asked a judge to make him stop. Wednesday, the judge ordered both sides to restrict their comments on the case. She will hear arguments on their motions Thursday.

“You cannot understate the seriousness of accusations” against James, said Atlanta criminal defense attorney Buddy Parker, who is not involved in the case. “What’s being done here is to go directly at the prosecutor and how he investigated the case. The entire government is on trial.”

Ellis is accused of shaking down county vendors for campaign contributions and punishing those who refused to give. He faces 14 felony charges including extortion and strongly denies them all.

He accuses James of illegally videotaping him during the investigation, then failing to turn over the evidence as required. Ellis’ legal team has also charged that James himself hit up vendors for donations for a political event.

The tone of the accusations underscores the tension that has defined the case from nearly the beginning, said Parker, a former federal prosecutor and former law partner with Ellis’ lead attorney Craig Gillen.

That tension first appeared in January 2013, when agents from James’ office seized documents from Ellis’ home and office while the CEO was voluntarily testifying before a special grand jury investigating allegations of corruption in DeKalb.

At the time, Ellis said he had been misled to appear at the grand jury.

The bad blood the raids created emerged again in the most recent motion in the case, and James asked Superior Court Judge Courtney Johnson on Wednesday to stop Ellis and Gillen from making statements about the case outside the courtroom.

In an emergency motion filed late Tuesday, James noted Ellis had recently posted a video on YouTube and had created a website titled “Friends of Burrell Ellis.” In the video, Ellis said his 83-year-old mother was home alone when the search took place, and the trauma lingers to this day.

“The DA went through my closets, my wife’s personal items, my kids’ toy bins and even my trash and found nothing illegal or improper because I have done absolutely nothing wrong,” Ellis said in the video.

In a hearing Wednesday quickly called by Johnson, Gillen argued any order would hinder Ellis’ right to speak.

Late Wednesday, Johnson issued an order greatly restricting what parties can say publicly. She noted the case has garnered significant media attention and expressed concern about extensive publicity tainting the would-be jury pool.

Johnson prohibited “all participants in the trial” from discussing with the media the possibility of a guilty plea, the existence of a confession, any opinion on the guilt or innocence of Ellis or a suspect and any information that a lawyer knows is likely inadmissible in a court proceeding or would “create a substantial risk of prejudicing an impartial trial.”

Johnson said attorneys for the state and the defense can only talk about a few things, such as any information contained in the public record, the scheduling or outcome of court hearings and “the claim, offense or defenses involved.”

The nasty squabbling underscores how much each official has at stake, Atlanta criminal defense attorney Ed Garland said. Both James and Ellis should be allowed to defend themselves not just in court motions but in the court of public opinion, he said.

“You have at stake a politician’s career, reputation and economic future, not to mention the threat of taking away his liberty,” said Garland, who is not involved in the case. “This case involves the conduct of public officials – both the prosecution and the accused. The sunlight of openness should shine on it all.”

James, who has declined public comment in the case beyond his filings, may be required to testify at Thursday’s hearing. Gillen has subpoenaed James as a witness for the defense.

James has asked Johnson to reject the subpoenas, calling them “harassing and retaliatory.” James also said Ellis’ legal team is seeking information that is immaterial to the case.

If James is required to testify, Gillen is expected to ask him about a videotape of Ellis allegedly taken from a “super spy” wristwatch worn by Kelvin Walton, the county’s purchasing director who has been cooperating with prosecutors.

Gillen is expected to call unnamed former members of the District Attorney’s Office as witnesses in Thursday’s hearing, and said they are the ones who said that video exists.

Gillen alleges that a member of James’ staff, after watching the video, told James it was taken illegally because it was done without a court order, in a non-public place, without Ellis’ consent.

If those witnesses can convince the judge the videotape exists and could have demonstrated Ellis’ innocence, James may have some explaining to do.

Ellis’ court motion contends that James told the employee he had several such videos, yet prosecutors did not turn them over to the defense as they were required to do in the pretrial exchange of evidence known as discovery.

Ellis’ lawyers have asked Johnson to dismiss the indictment because of James’ alleged misconduct. Johnson could also disqualify the District Attorney’s Office and refer the case to the state Attorney General’s Office to appoint a special prosecutor, according to the motion.

Atlanta criminal defense attorney Page Pate said Ellis and his legal team are continuing the theme they have emphasized from the start.

“They’re trying to make this appear as political as possible,” said Pate, who is not involved in the case. “They’re hoping all these allegations will take attention away from the substantive allegations, and they want to get people thinking this is nothing but a political vendetta. They’re laying the groundwork of a strategy that they’ll use in pretrial motions and hearings and all the way up until the trial.”

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