Within weeks, a jury could be weighing a critical question in the high-profile political-corruption case of the DeKalb County CEO: Just who is Burrell Ellis?
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The story so far
A DeKalb County grand jury indicted CEO Burrell Ellis on June 18 on 15 criminal counts, 14 of them felonies. He is accused strong-arming vendors who do work with the county to contribute to his re-election campaign and threatening those who declined.
Gov. Nathan Deal, following the recommendation of a three-member panel, suspended Ellis from office on July 16. Deal then named DeKalb County Commission Presiding Officer Lee May as acting CEO.
District Attorney Robert James filed a motion July 25 requesting an August trial date in the case.
Ellis, who has denied wrongdoing, pleaded not guilty to all charges July 29. His legal team has filed a motion asking all charges be dismissed, which will likely lead to a hearing that has not yet been scheduled.
Cast of characters
Burrell Ellis: DeKalb County’s chief elected officer, Ellis holds a post similar to a strong mayor in large jurisdictions, running nearly all of the daily business of Georgia’s third-largest county. A former county commissioner and real estate attorney, Ellis was first elected CEO in 2008 and is now in his second term. He became a public target of a political-corruption case in January, when investigators from the district attorney’s office searched his home and office and seized campaign records and county contracts. The results of that investigation remain under seal. The DA unveiled a 15-count indictment on separate accusations this year.
Robert James: DeKalb County’s district attorney since 2011, James says a stint as an elementary school paraprofessional in a poor area of Atlanta helped steer him into prosecution. He is a former prosecutor in DeKalb and Rockdale counties who spent four years as DeKalb’s solicitor. In his short tenure, James has taken the lead in prosecuting Hemy Neuman for killing Rusty Sneiderman and is working to convict Sneiderman’s widow of several charges related to that case. He is expected to lead the prosecution of Ellis on the 14 felony charges and one misdemeanor he faces.
Craig Gillen: Ellis’ lead attorney, Gillen has been a private defense attorney for 20 years. Before that, he served as the assistant U.S. Attorney in the Northern District of Georgia and was deputy independent counsel during the Iran/Contra scandal in Washington. His successes include the prosecution of Congressman Patrick Swindall in 1989 and serving as lead counsel in the indictment of former Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger.
J. Tom Morgan: Morgan served as DeKalb County’s district attorney for 12 years. He led the prosecution of former DeKalb Sheriff Sidney Dorsey, who was convicted of corruption and murdering his opponent, sheriff-elect Derwin Brown. Morgan has more than 30 years of trial experience in Georgia and North Carolina. He has been in private practice since 2007.
Kelvin Walton: Walton has been DeKalb County’s director of purchasing and procurement since 2007, having served as the department’s deputy since his hiring in 2003. He is credited with earning the office its first excellence award from a national professional group in 2006. Walton is listed as an “unindicted co-conspirator” in the indictment against Ellis - suggesting he will be a key witness. In 2007, when he was serving as acting purchasing director, Walton told auditors he was ordered by the county’s chief operating officer to OK multiple sub-$50,000 payments to vendors. Auditors later ruled those “splits” were done to avoid the threshold that would trigger competitive bidding, though no charges were filed.