At least two new companies have hired attorneys or contacted the DeKalb County District Attorney’s office with complaints that mirror the criminal charges against CEO Burrell Ellis.
Ellis has pledged to fight hard against the 15-count indictment that accuses him of strong-arming three vendors who work for the county into donating to his re-election campaign. Ellis said last week he is innocent of all charges.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution spoke with one vendor who tells a story similar to the indictment allegations of being pressed to donate and another who claims to have lost an existing deal after declining to give. Both have contacted the county to complain.
District Attorney Robert James declined to say whether the new complaints will mean new charges against Ellis. But the public airing of more allegations could further mar DeKalb’s battered image.
They could also hamper basic services for 700,000 people if county leaders slow or stop contracts over worries the system itself is tainted.
“I really think it needs to grind to a halt if they want it done right,” said Loretta Washington, a county resident and civil engineer who filed a complaint just before Ellis’ June 18 indictment that echoes the charges against him. “I know something isn’t right.”
Washington’s civil engineering firm was just four years old when Ellis first ran for CEO in 2008. Washington decided to donate to both Ellis and his opponent, now-county Commissioner Stan Watson.
She has repeatedly bid for DeKalb projects since then, but secured only subcontractor jobs on work that went to companies far bigger than her seven-person office in south DeKalb.
Then during the 2011 campaign, she said Ellis called her directly four times and asked her to give $2,500, the maximum allowed. The fourth call came after she scraped together $250 to give from her struggling business, she said.
“He’s been totally ineffective in office, but I give because I know I have to,” Washington said. “Then he calls to say thank you but you know I need more. I thought, this guy is crazy. But maybe that’s why I am not getting work.”
Washington said she never gave more money but she did keep bidding for work and losing. She complained in June, just days before Ellis’ indictment, of “politically connected” firms landing county projects.
Ellis, through his attorneys and a county spokeswoman, declined to comment.
But his lead attorney, former prosecutor Craig Gillen, said in a news conference a week after the indictment that Ellis soliciting vendors was no different than any other elected official seeking donations. And, he said, there is no pattern that shows only donors later won contracts.
“Some gave and didn’t get businesses. Some didn’t give and got business,” Gillen said.
Attorney Bob Wilson, a former DeKalb DA, said three other vendors have contacted his office claiming they had already won business — and in one case already done the work— when DeKalb suddenly stopped paying them after they did not respond to pressure to give.
“They did not play the game, and so they did not get paid,” Wilson said.
The AJC could not independently verify those claims, which Wilson said he referred to other attorneys. He is focused on representing Paul Champion in a 2011 lawsuit alleging kickbacks involving upper-level county managers. That case remains in court but helped prompt a yearlong probe into county contracts.
It is unclear if the now-sealed report on that investigation is tied to the charges of theft, extortion and conspiracy against Ellis.
Another vendor complained in an email to the county, obtained by the AJC, that DeKalb cancelled a $40,000 contract after the owner explicitly refused to support Ellis’ re-election bid.
“It is uncomfortable and suspicious timing that when it became common knowledge that I am not supporting the CEO’s re-election, my contract suddenly was terminated,” the owner wrote.
The AJC is withholding the name of the business and person, who fears that going public will hurt future work.
The charges against Ellis claim he threatened such repercussions with at least three firms when asking for donations. In one instance, an employee at the technology firm CIBER said Ellis told her he would report her to her bosses for bad customer service if she did not donate.
Ellis has said previously he was “aggressive” in pursuing donations but adamantly denies the allegations in the indictment.
An Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation in February revealed that nearly 40 percent — almost $600,000 — of the campaign cash Ellis collected had come from firms that either worked or wanted to work for the county.
Questions about county contracts predate Ellis’ tenure, though. In 2007, an internal review revealed that 14 companies had been paid more than $22 million of taxpayer dollars in payments of $49,000 each – just below the $50,000 threshold that triggers competitive bidding.
A 2008 audit showed other companies received $10.9 million more than their contracts called for. Another $5.4 million went to companies that did not have contracts at all.
“This level of accusation is what really hurts the public trust,” said William Baker, a public administration professor at Kennesaw State University. “In the end, those people trying to do the right thing are indicted along the way, at least in public perception.”
Perception could become reality in one regard. Rumors have begun that DeKalb will freeze or at least slow down its contract process if enough complaints arise.
For instance, the County Commission decided in April to start over on a management contract worth at least $15 million in the county’s massive water/sewer overhaul because one of the short-listed firms was named in search warrants served on Ellis in January.
That decision threatens the county’s ability to meet federal deadlines to cut the number of sewer spills — delays that may drive up the overall price tag for the work and the rates that are paying for it.
Delays in other contracts could result in everything from overgrown grass in county parks to police officer driving cars with bald tires.
Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton said for now, the county will continue with its existing contracts policy as more information unfolds.
“Of course, I am concerned, but we have to wait and see what comes of all this,” she said.
In recent years, local and state governments have relied more on private companies to provide services that used to be done in-house, in the hopes of lowering costs through bidding. Among contracts DeKalb has:
* $120,000 annual contract for an Austell company to provide toilet paper, seat covers and facial tissue in bathrooms in county buildings ranging from the courthouse to medical examiner’s office.
* $1.125 million, split between companies in Doraville and Norcross, for about 18 months of new tires and tubes on county vehicles such as police cars and public works trucks.
* $7.7 million contract with a Tucker company that is grading and preparing the land around the Snapfinger Wastewater Treatment Facility as part of a $250 million upgrade and expansion of the center. Most of the work will be done by private firms.
A DeKalb County grand jury indicted CEO Burrell Ellis on 15 criminal counts, 14 of them felonies.
The charges 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, did 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.