More accusations about star witness in Ellis corruption case

More accusations about star witness in Ellis corruption case

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Channel 2's Erica Byfield reports

The story so far

* A DeKalb County grand jury indicted CEO Burrell Ellis on June 18 on 15 criminal counts, 14 of them felonies. He is accused of strong-arming vendors who do work with the county to contribute to his re-election campaign and threatening those who declined.

* Gov. Nathan Deal, following the recommendation of a three-member panel, suspended Ellis from office July 16, then named DeKalb County Commission presiding officer Lee May as acting CEO.

*On Jan. 16, a DeKalb County jury re-indicted Ellis on many of the same charges and added five, including one count of bribery and three counts of perjury. He now faces 14 charges in the case.

*Ellis’ legal team and District Attorney Robert James faced off in two days of hearings Jan. 23 and 24 that included accusations that James had Ellis videotaped illegally during the investigation.

* Defense motions filed Feb. 28 include requests to move the June 2 trial date to September or October and a request for the judge to seize James’ computer to search for evidence of other secretly recorded videos of Ellis.

* The new defense motions also raise new allegations against the DA’s star witness, county purchasing director Kelvin Walton. Walton has not been charged with a crime. He acknowledged in grand jury testimony that he allowed a county vendor to do work at his home he didn’t pay for. He lied about the activity at first, then later admitted the wrongdoing in testimony.

Digging Deep

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution was the first to confront DeKalb County with new grand jury testimony that alleges DeKalb purchasing director Kelvin Walton may have taken money from vendors. Last week, the AJC’s reporting partner Channel 2 Action News obtained the previously sealed grand jury transcripts.

Accusations about possible corrupt behavior are piling up against the star witness in the upcoming trial of suspended DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis.

County Purchasing Director Kelvin Walton admits breaking the law by not paying a county contractor for work done at his home, according to portions of his special grand jury testimony attached to new motion filed by Ellis’ legal team.

Ellis’ assistant, Nina Hall, told the grand jury she took money from Walton that she assumed was from county vendors. Hall served on at least 15 committees recommending what firms should get county jobs.

Walton, who declined comment, has not been charged with a crime. He still oversees all county bids and contracts, including the $1.35 billion overhaul of the county’s water/sewer system.

Accusations like those against him could lead to complaints to the county’s newly reinvigorated ethics board, which can investigate and, if warranted, fire county workers. No complaints had been filed with the ethics board by Friday.

One question, though, is whether Walton could receive protection under the state whistle-blower law. Attorneys say he appears to meet the qualifications, by being a public employee who is reporting on fraud or waste of public dollars. The twist is that Walton, who earns the same $153,000 salary as Ellis, began reporting the alleged abuse via covert recordings only after prosecutors labeled him an “unindicted co-conspirator.” He is a cooperating witness in District Attorney Robert James’ case against Ellis.

That means Walton could have been part of the alleged problem of how DeKalb spends taxpayer dollars.

“What’s the difference between what (Walton) is said to have done and what Burrell Ellis is alleged to have done,” asked Max Richardson, a Norcross defense attorney not involved in the case. “You still have someone taking advantage of their position and benefiting financially. They’re using a witness whose hands aren’t clean.”

Gov. Nathan Deal suspended Ellis last summer, shortly after Ellis was indicted on political corruption charges. An investigation by a special grand jury that looked into allegations of corruption in water and sewer department contracts led to Ellis’ indictment.

Parts of Walton’s testimony in two appearances before the special grand jury, which is typically kept secret, became public record by being attached to the latest motions in the Ellis case.

Walton at first denies accepting any favors or bribes from county vendors. He later admits he lied and, in 2008 or 2009, allowed Paul Champion, who had a tree-removal contract with DeKalb, to cut down one tree and some limbs in his yard. Walton never paid for the work, which he said Champion said would cost between $150 and $250.

In her testimony, Hall describes Walton as a close friend who gave her an undisclosed amount of money to help with a “situation” she was dealing with and says she assumed the money came from two county vendors, Barry Bennett and Michael Hightower.

Hall, who now works as a watershed department special projects manager and earns $75,800 a year, said she did not know why she believed the money came from those two.

Bennett is president of Metals and Materials Engineers, which has more than $14 million in contracts on the DeKalb sewer overhaul, according to county records. Hightower, a former Fulton County commissioner who served a six-month prison sentence for taking $25,000 in bribes to help a businessman win county work, is co-owner of the Collaborative Group, a consultancy business that has held DeKalb contracts.

“It appears from the recently produced discovery that Walton was the mastermind of a more insidious scheme that could have had an influence on the selection process for millions of dollars on DeKalb County projects,” Ellis’ attorney Craig Gillen writes in the motion to keep the tapes Walton made and other recordings out of Ellis’ trial.

An outside investigator DeKalb hired to check out county employees named in the grand jury’s report said he could not substantiate any questionable activities by Walton.

DeKalb has paid $14,342 to the firm run by Owen Griffin, the associate dean of Mercer University’s law school, for that review. Griffin’s report does not include any reference to the tree removal or Hall’s accusations, since those were kept under seal until the latest motions.

Walton has spent the past year helping shepherd spending on major county projects, such as a $10 million deal to expand the Snapfinger wastewater treatment plant and a $30 million contract to oversee work at the Snapfinger and Pole Bridge plants.

Both deals are part of the $1.35 billion overhaul of the county’s water/sewer system, including $700,000 of federally mandated repairs. Attorneys said it is unclear if those or other contracts could now come into question.

Most of DeKalb’s elected officials have supported Walton and the work he does. Interim CEO Lee May, who was head of the county commission’s budget committee until last summer, routinely worked with Walton on county business for years.

As recently as last month, May and several county commissioners asked for Walton’s input and expertise during budget talks. The commission approves most of Walton’s recommendations on which companies to hire for county work.

May, as interim CEO, would have authority to fire or demote Walton if whistle-blower protection turns out not to apply. May declined to comment on the latest allegations, though spokesman Burke Brennan said officials were not aware of the latest allegations until informed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week.

“We will continue to provide all relevant information to our outside investigator and use this investigation to assist in guiding our decisions,” Brennan said in the statement. “However it is unlikely that we will receive all of the facts surrounding this case until the judicial process runs its course.”

DeKalb may need to pay both Walton and Hall as whistle-blowers, Atlanta defense attorney Jill Polster said. The state law is designed to protect those who inform from being fired, suspended or demoted.

She suggested that prosecutors likely realized that, too, when making Walton their confidential informant who secretly recorded Ellis. Polster said it is likely they put him before the grand jury a second time because they wanted to be first to explain his alleged wrongdoings, to build some of the credibility they’ll need for the trial.

“The fact is, prosecutors on most cases deal with unsavory characters to prove their cases,” said Polster, a former DeKalb prosecutor who is not involved in the Ellis case. “This is just a more high-brow version of doing that in prosecuting, say, a drug deal.”

Assistant District Attorney John Melvin acknowledges jurors’ look of “disdain” for Walton when Walton admits to lying, according to transcripts of testimony.

But Melvin appears to offer a hint about prosecutors’ handling of Walton, in a comment to the grand jury. Once Walton became an informant, Melvin said, the DA’s office told him to no longer push back against Ellis as he had in the past, to see how far the CEO would go.

“We’ve asked him not to resist as much as he normally does so we can get a full measure of the CEO’s corruption,” Melvin told the special grand jury. “Fair enough?”

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