A panel of Burrell Ellis’ peers Monday unanimously recommended that Gov. Nathan Deal suspend the DeKalb County CEO as he fights 14 felony charges.
The governor will announce later this week if he plans to follow that advice. He has affirmed every panel decision that has come to him so far, most recently the removal of a City Commissioner in Brunswick, a Deal spokesman said.
The panel recommendation is based solely on whether the charges of theft, extortion and conspiracy hinder Ellis’ ability to run daily operations in Georgia’s third-largest county. It is not a ruling on the merits of the case.
If he agrees to suspend Ellis, the governor must also name the CEO’s temporary replacement. DeKalb’s presiding officer, who runs County Commission meetings, would take over only if Ellis’ legal woes make him unable to resume the job, which would trigger an election.
Deal has “probably already decided that he will accept the recommendation,” said Steve Anthony, a Georgia State political science professor. “What he’s probably putting the finishing touches on is who will take over.”
Last month’s indictment alleges Ellis ordered county staff to compile a list of vendors who did work for DeKalb so that he could call them for campaign donations, threatening those who declined with the loss of work.
Ellis has repeatedly denied wrongdoing and pledged the fight the charges while also publicly appearing optimistic that he will stay in office. Monday afternoon, after meeting with county staffers to talk about the case, he pledged to abide by whatever decision Deal makes.
“Should the governor decide to suspend, I will devote myself 100 percent to defending myself against these whole unsubstantiated and unprecedented charges,” Ellis said. “Otherwise, we are going to continue to stay focused on the job I was elected to do.”
A temporary caretaker would serve until the case ends in conviction or vindication. Or, the person could stay only through the end of the year.
State law requires District Attorney Robert James begin the trial in two court terms, which would end in December, unless Ellis’ attorneys request delays.
“If the case is not moving quickly, and our office can not put up or shut up, there is a process for him to be automatically reinstated,” James said.
James opened Monday morning’s hour-long hearing, laying out why he thought the panel — made up of Rockdale CEO Richard Oden, Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens and Clayton Commission Chairman Jeffrey Turner — should recommend suspension.
All three have personal or professional ties to Ellis. Oden and Turner are Democrats, like Ellis, and serve together on two committees at the the Atlanta Regional Commission.
Olens, a Republican, also knows Ellis from his days as chairman in Cobb, as well as from work with the ARC.
None of the committee members spoke or asked questions during the hearing, which grew tense the moment James began his presentation. The two men rarely broke their gaze at first, the only time they have been in the same room — much less a table apart — since the June indictment.
Ellis also maintained a lock on James during his speech and again when James and Ellis’ attorney, Craig Gillen, briefly squared off over the DA not giving Ellis advance notice of the indictment.
Gillen argued that the law required James to provide a 15-day notice of the charges and allow Ellis to address the grand jury that went on to indict him, something a Court of Appeals case said was required in certain indictments of public officials. He went on to point out recent Ellis successes, such as a cost-of-living raise for the lowest paid workers, and questioned the motivation behind the indictment.
“Mr. Ellis has worked with commitment and diligence in his office, both before and since the return of the indictment,” Gillen said. “We are perceiving this as the latest in an unfortunate political animus against the CEO by the district attorney’s office.”
James asked for, and got time, to rebut. The law in question would have required notice only if certain charges were filed, he said.
Speaking directly to the panel, James ended the back-and-forth with a blunt statement.
“He is not entitled to a 15-day notice. You have been misled,” James said.
If suspended, Ellis will continue to draw his $150,000 salary. He could be reinstated if cleared at trial.
The story so far
A DeKalb County grand jury indicted CEO Burrell Ellis on June 18 on 15 criminal counts, 14 of them felonies.
The charges include theft, conspiracy and extortion mainly related to campaign donations sought from companies that do business with the county. Ellis has yet to enter a plea, but has publicly and strongly disputed the allegations. State law requires the governor to name a three-person panel to review the charges whenever an official is indicted while serving in office.
The panel has unanimously recommended suspension, giving Gov. Nathan Deal final say. The governor said he will announce his decision later this week.
If Deal suspends Ellis, he must also name a temporary CEO who can serve as the case goes on.