The week after DeKalb District Attorney investigators seized stacks of boxes and computers from Burrell Ellis’ home and office looking for county contracts and campaign records, Ellis, who was county CEO, gave nearly $30,000 back to campaign donors.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reached out to the 23 individual and business donors who got those January refunds. Five of them spoke to the AJC and said the returned checks came with a campaign letter notifying them they had exceeded the $2,500 donation cap. State law restricts donors from exceeding that cap over the course of an election cycle.
“It’s not hugely unusual they would discover that right after a reporting period,” said Bruce Bowers, who served as DeKalb County’s state lobbyist through last summer and had a $500 donation returned. “At one time or another, other campaigns have to send money back.”
None of the donors who were sent refunds on Jan. 15 are named in the Jan. 7 search warrants or in the 15-count indictment that charged Ellis with theft, conspiracy and extortion in June.
Ellis did not respond to requests for comment. A review of state campaign records shows Ellis has returned money before, four times since 2011. But the $4,250 total of those refunds pales in size and scope to the $28,000 returned in January, in amounts that ranged from $500 to $3,500.
Kennesaw State University political science professor Kerwin Swint took note of that difference and the timing, the refunds coming just after the search warrants put the spotlight on Ellis. “When you’re under scrutiny, you want to be able to say you made a mistake, fixed it, and now there’s no problem,” Swint said. “Under all the circumstances, it looks like he’s trying to make things look better.”
But one longtime Ellis ally who got one of the refunds thinks the timing is coincidental.
Arnie Silverman gave to show support for the man who was first elected to the top post in Georgia’s third-largest county in 2008. Silverman got $400 back for exceeding the cap with his Silverman Construction Program, while his wife’s real estate firm, Yellow Loft, got $500 back.
Silverman recalls first hearing he had gone over the limit and would get a refund in December – the month before the raids.
“I don’t think it’s connected at all to (the raids),” Silverman said.
The list of refunds in the state campaign report released last month includes attorneys, developers and builders who often rely on government decisions and policies for their business.
Among them: BenchMark Management, a design/construction company specializing in water and wastewater projects such as the $1.34 billion overhaul DeKalb just launched, and Egbert Perry, the former director of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta who now serves as CEO of The Integral Group, known for urban development and mixed-use projects
Ellis spent $52,918 between January and June 30, with the refunds accounting for most of it. The rest went to political consultants and regular bills such as web hosting.
Not included were any payments to the four attorneys Ellis hired Jan. 17, after the search warrants were executed and the refunds sent.
A 2012 opinion from the state ethics board indicates Ellis could use his campaign cash for his legal fees, as long as the costs relate to his campaign. However, attorney J. Tom Morgan said, as far as he knew, Ellis was not using that money on his defense.
“It has never come up,” Morgan said.
The indictment says Ellis ordered county staff to compile lists of vendors to contact for donations during his 2012 re-election campaign, then threatened those who declined to give.
Ellis has repeatedly denied wrongdoing but admits he was “aggressive” in seeking donations, despite being heavily favored to win against two unknowns.
The rivals raised $165,656 and $3,335 for their bids, according to campaign reports filed with the state. By comparison, Ellis raised $332,830.
Steve Shepherd, vice president of the construction company Plant Improvement Company, said his firm gave Ellis $2,500 in March 2012.
The company, which does no work with the county but is based in central DeKalb, had already given $1,000 in 2010, though. The firm received $1,000 back in January, for its overage.
“There was no intent to go over,” Shepherd said. “I guess you could say we are citizens of DeKalb and gave as such.”
Ellis case timeline
- January 2012: DeKalb County District Attorney Robert James convenes a special grand jury to investigate allegations of corruption in the county’s water department. There had been allegations of bid-rigging and kickbacks.
- January-June 2012: DeKalb’s top elected officials and administrators, including CEO Burrell Ellis, appear before the special grand jury. Former CEO Vernon Jones refuses to appear without assurances he is not the target of a criminal investigation.
- Jan. 7, 2013: Investigators search the home and offices of Ellis and his former campaign manager, Kevin Ross, seeking information about campaign contributions from vendors. Ellis denies any wrongdoing. The search takes place while Ellis testifies before the grand jury.
- Jan. 15: Ellis returns $28,200 to 23 campaign donors, according to state campaign reports.
- Jan. 18: Special grand jury finishes its report. Attorneys for Ross and Ellis go to court seeking to keep it under seal.
- Feb. 14: The special grand jury demands that its findings be made public.
- March 21: The foreman of the special grand jury sues the judge overseeing the grand jury, hoping to force him to make its report public.
- June 18: James announces a 15-count indictment of Ellis, accusing him of extorting campaign contributions from vendors.
- July 8: Gov. Nathan Deal names the top Democrats from two neighboring counties and Attorney General Sam Olens to a committee to recommend whether he should suspend Ellis from office.
- July 15: The state panel holds a hearing and recommends Ellis be suspended from office.
- July 16: Deal formally suspends Ellis and names county commissioner Lee May as interim CEO.
How we got this story
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution checked state campaign disclosure reports this month, shortly after the deadline for filing them. The most recent report shows indicted former DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis refunded $28,200 to nearly two dozen donors a week after investigators searched his home and office for records including campaign donations. A check of previous campaign disclosures showed the size and scope of those refunds was unusual for Ellis’ re-election campaign.