DeKalb CEO accused of strong-arming vendors

Burrell Ellis, twice elected to the top post in Georgia’s third-largest county under a pledge of progress, was indicted Tuesday afternoon on 15 counts of political corruption that could bring a stunning end to his once-promising career.

DeKalb County District Attorney Robert James read the list of charges — including extortion, theft and conspiracy — after a daylong presentment to a grand jury. It accuses Ellis of ordering county staff to compile a list of vendors he allegedly hit up for cash in his CEO campaign, and threatening to punish firms that did not contribute.

By Tuesday night, Ellis had already reported to DeKalb County Jail and posted $25,000 bond.

Ellis did not answer questions Tuesday. One of his attorneys, former DeKalb district attorney J. Tom Morgan, said Ellis was withholding comment until he could review the indictment.

The case now heads to arraignment and the indictment heads to Gov. Nathan Deal, who must decide whether to suspend Ellis from the chief executive’s job he has held since 2009.

But even without being removed, the charges alone could be the most damaging black eye to the image of DeKalb, already battered by the pending racketeering prosecution of former DeKalb Schools Superintendent Crawford Lewis and Deal’s decision to replace most members of the county school board.

“We are all just stunned,” said County Commissioner Elaine Boyer, a one-time Ellis ally who has butted heads with him since his elevation from commissioner to CEO. “It’s a very sad day in DeKalb County.”

The 17-page indictment paints Ellis as desperate for campaign contributions during his 2012 re-election campaign, 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.

But the indictments allege Ellis was vengeful when at least three companies doing business with DeKalb didn’t give: technology consultancy CIBER; equipment sales and service firm Power and Energy of Austell; and Ellenwood real estate firm National Property Institute, or NPI.

The indictment says when workers at those companies didn’t respond to Ellis’ strong-arm tactics, Ellis ordered the county’s purchasing director to keep them from winning future contracts.

CIBER, for instance, lost out on a share of a $4 million consulting contract in 2012, county records show.

But, despite the threats, records reveal that NPI won $201,065 in contracts to rehab foreclosed homes in the county since last year.

“Of course I am aggressive in seeking contributions to my campaign. That’s how you win,” Ellis said in an exclusive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in January, hours after investigators from the DA’s office seized records from his home and office, searching, among other things, for campaign records and county contracts.

But, Ellis adamantly denied ever promising a contract for donors or penalizing companies that did not contribute.

“If I know someone is soliciting a contract with the county, I generally won’t even meet with them,” Ellis said, adding he also avoided the appearance of conflict by making campaign-related calls from a friend’s Decatur business.

In January, DA investigators filed three search warrants, two seeking wiretaps on cellular phones that yielded two discs of material that are sealed as part of the special grand jury investigating allegations of corruption in the county.

They did not execute a third warrant on the phone number at the office Ellis used at R.L. Brown & Associates architects.

“It breaks your heart,” said Albert Trujillo, the retiree who has served as the foreman of the special grand jury, whose yearlong investigation remains under seal but was apparently the blueprint for the indictment.

“Here’s all these people working as hard as they can … then you see these guys that are taking advantage of all these people,” Trujillo said. “They are taking their money, their tax money.”

Portraying Ellis as a politician adept at twisting arms and punishing challengers to his power could present its own challenges, though.

An Ivy-League-educated lawyer, Ellis has long been known as so button-down and formal that friends and detractors alike refer to him as Urkel, the nerdy character from a popular 1990s’ sitcom.

He often clashed with the County Commission over political power, but also once taught classes in collaborative problem-solving to law students at Georgia State University.

James and prosecutors from his public corruption unit must tackle those disparities while simultaneously undertaking other big cases, such as the school racketeering case, said University of Georgia law professor Ronald Carlson.

“It’s going to be a difficult, complex case,” Carlson said. “Public corruption cases are often the province of the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Unless he felt he had a team in place that could do that, he would not have brought this indictment.”

James would not comment on the indictment or answer if the charges tie into his yearlong investigation with the special purpose grand jury that looked into possible corruption in county water and sewer contracts.

James and Ellis remain locked in a legal battle over a Superior Court judge’s ruling that Ellis and his former campaign manager, Kevin Ross, could preview the special grand jury’s still-sealed report to see if they are named in it.

Investigators searched the homes and offices of both men in January looking for evidence of crimes such as bid-rigging. None of the six firms listed in those raids was mentioned in Tuesday’s indictment.

But the lingering questions, especially on the heels of six school board members suspended from office in March, have left some county residents disillusioned.

“Every elected official in DeKalb County seems to be a crook,” said Robert Robertson, a retired Realtor who lives near DeKalb-Peachtree Airport.

He said he and a lot of his friends voted for Ellis because he looked “polished” and seemed honest. Then, Robertson read about how connected some of Ellis’ campaign supporters were.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in February 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.

“You don’t have a chance unless you’re in the shakedown,” Robertson said. “It’s disgraceful.”

Staff writers Rhonda Cook, Marcus Garner, Ty Tagami and Steve Visser contributed to this article.

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