Even as DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis tried to put a business-as-usual face on his activities Wednesday, Tuesday’s 15-count indictment could push him from running the day-to-day activities of Georgia’s third largest county even before his case is tried.
State law says once Gov. Nathan Deal gets the charges of theft, extortion and conspiracy against Ellis, the governor must appoint a panel within two weeks to consider whether to suspend the CEO. The commission has another 14 days to make a recommendation to the governor.
“You have to think, he will have to be suspended,” said Bob Wilson, a former DeKalb district attorney. “The accusations are directly related to the functions he has in his office.”
Ellis could also ask Deal to suspend him – highly unlikely given his adamant denial of wrongdoing — or he could voluntarily step down.
The decision will boil down to a calculation with his attorneys, whether Ellis wants to focus on the county or his defense.
“It’s all strategy, political or otherwise,” said criminal defense attorney Steve Sadow, who is not involved in the case. “We don’t know, for instance, if he will bog down the process with motions or demand a speedy trial.”
Deal must perform his own political calculus. He has been wary of intervening in local affairs at the risk of being branded a meddler. But he must also account for the political consequences if he allows a county of 700,000 people be led by a politician indicted on 14 felonies amid what could be a lengthy trial.
If Ellis steps down or is suspended, County Commissioner Lee May, as presiding officer, would then take over the top job.
The worry that political mismanagement could taint metro Atlanta’s image prodded Deal to oust six DeKalb school board members this spring. At the time, he said he was acting because the threat of the district losing its accreditation could risk Atlanta’s pro-business credentials.
“When these kinds of things happen, it has an effect far beyond the school system,” Deal told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in April. “It begins to affect whether or not businesses come to the community.”
It’s not certain whether Deal views Ellis’ indictment in the same context. He was unavailable for comment on Wednesday as he traveled abroad.
Ellis made himself scarce too, though he spent much of the day in his county offices in Decatur.
He was a no-show for a meeting first thing, called by his Chief of Staff Hakim Hilliard for all of the employees who report to Ellis.
Hilliard told the workers to continue focus on their jobs handling everything from business permits to the county’s parks, said spokeswoman Jill Strickland Luse.
Ellis tried to lead by that example, arriving late Wednesday morning and immediately jumping into his daily schedule.
He kept reporters from a previously scheduled two-hour luncheon with the county’s mayors, to talk about tax rates in the midyear budget now being finalized.
But a quick scan of the crowd showed Ellis to be smiling and greeting the mayors and city managers in the conference room adjacent to his sixth-floor office.
“He’s a professional,” Strickland Luse said. “The focus here is taking care of the county’s business.”
Plenty is on DeKalb’s plate. In addition to tweaks to the $559 million budget, the county is also weighing a controversial plan to build a new $8 million animal shelter and in the second year of an eight-year, $1.35 billion overhaul to its water/sewer system.
Accusations of bid rigging and kickbacks in the Watershed department’s contracts were the initial focus of a yearlong investigation by a special grand jury convened by District Attorney Robert James in 2012.
Investigators from James’ office searched the homes and offices of Ellis and his former campaign manager, Kevin Ross, in January looking for evidence of crimes.
None of the six firms listed in those raids was mentioned in Tuesday’s indictment, and it is unclear if the now-sealed report on that probe is tied to this week’s indictments.
James and Ellis have been in a legal battle for four months over Superior Court judges ruling that Ellis and Ross can preview that panel’s report, to see if they are named.
James’ office would not comment about that investigation Wednesday other than to say the legal battle remains in the courts.
The district attorney also had not requested an arraignment date for Ellis by Wednesday. Ellis is expected to waive his first-appearance, which would be done this week, and may also waive arraignment once one is placed on the judicial calendar.
Superior Court Judge Courtney Johnson was on the bench and not available for comment Wednesday. She has been assigned the case but may recuse herself from it because of a background that includes a stint as a DeKalb prosecutor.
Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this report.
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 to 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 week.
Robert James - DeKalb County’s District Attorney since 2011, James cites a stint as an elementary school paraprofessional in a poor area of Atlanta as pushing 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 now working to convict the widow, Andrea, who maintains she was not involved in the murder. He is expected to lead the prosecution of Ellis on the 14 felonies and one misdemeanor he now faces.
Nathan Deal - A Democrat-turned Republican, Deal spent nine terms in Congress before being elected Georgia’s governor in 2010. He has since made it clear he does not relish stepping into local affairs. However, once the indictments reach his office, Deal must appoint a three-member panel to review whether Ellis can stay in office. He will have final say on whether to suspend Ellis if the panel supports that move.
Lee May - The son of a pastor, May became the youngest person elected to DeKalb County Commission when he was first elected at 30 years old in 2006. May holds a master’s of divinity degree but is better known for a series of bankruptcies that stem in part from his failed effort to run a movie theater near Lithonia. May has said his struggles help him understand taxpayers’ financial woes as the head of the commission’s budget committee. As the commission’s presiding officer since January, county law dictates May would take over as CEO until a special election could be held if the executive is removed from office.
DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis, now that he has been criminally charged, will have to appear in court to be formally presented with the charges against him. He has the option of waiving that hearing.
Visit ajc.com and myajc.com for breaking news on the criminal case against Ellis.
A DeKalb County grand jury indicted CEO Burrell Ellis on 15 criminal counts on Tuesday, 14 of them felonies.
The charges facing DeKalb’s top elected official include theft, conspiracy and extortion:
Prosecutors allege in two counts that Ellis threatened to withhold county business from the IT vendor CIBER Inc. after an employee said she and the firm would not contribute to Ellis’ election campaign. One charge claims Ellis told the worker he would report that she provided poor customer service if she did not give.
Five counts accuse Ellis of making sure Power and Energy Services, an Austell equipment sales and service company, not receive work with DeKalb after the owners and an employee either did not respond to campaign solicitations or declined to give. Two charges claim Ellis instructed the county’s purchasing director to write a false note in the company’s file, describing them as non-responsive to explain why they no longer received contracts.
Five counts allege that Ellis ordered the purchasing director and department staffers to compile a list of county vendors for his use in campaign calls. Theft and fraud charges refer to stealing the workers’ time - on taxpayers’ dime - to do the work, as well as deliver the list to an off-site office. Two coercion charges claim Ellis forced those who worked for him to help with his political efforts.
Three counts accuse Ellis of directing the the purchasing director to stop honoring a contract with real estate firm National Property Institute of Ellenwood after the company did not give to his campaign. The counts also allege that Ellis ordered the county’s community development director to arrange a meeting with the firm over the lack of donations.