Numerous people across metro Atlanta have recently received cryptic form letters informing them that they were picked up on a wiretap while speaking with DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis or political consultant Kevin Ross.
The eavesdropping of the two men’s cellphones occurred sometime after Dec. 3 and ended in January, around the time investigators searched Ellis’ home and Ross’ office on Jan. 7.
Jeff Dickerson, a communications consultant who works for politicians and governments, received such a letter and said he has “talked to probably a dozen more people who’ve gotten them.”
“If you’ve talked with them, then your calls were intercepted,” said Dickerson, who said he works pro bono for Ellis and criticizes the sweeping scope of the probe. “I find it reprehensible and unconscionable. It’s a gestapo tactic. We have a new district attorney in DeKalb, and this is his way of operating.”
Erik Burton, a spokesman for District Attorney Robert James, said the letters were sent out pursuant to a federal law that “requires us to notify people whose communications were intercepted.”
He declined to say how many letters were sent out or how many conversations were recorded. He said the letters were mailed late last month and the investigation is ongoing.
The disclosure reveals a far wider eavesdropping campaign of DeKalb’s top political figures than was previously known.
The one-page letter does not refer specifically to the case being investigated. It says texts and conversations to and from the “Target Telephones” were intercepted and “all original recordings have been sealed by order of a Superior Court Judge.”
Ellis was indicted in June on charges of theft, extortion and conspiracy, accusing him of illegally pressuring county vendors to contribute to his campaign. Ellis, who disputes the allegations, was later suspended from his post by Gov. Nathan Deal.
Lawyers for both Ellis and Ross received such letters, leading them to worry that attorney-client privilege had been breached.
“I am very concerned that the DeKalb County DA’s office has listened in a conversation between me and my client,” said Seth Kirschenbaum, one of the lawyers who represents Ross. “One thing a person should be confident in is that privileged conversations between him and his lawyers are confidential.”
Kirschenbaum said he didn’t speak with Ross until after the search warrants were served. “That’s troubling,” he said, “because when the DA is really, really interested in what Kevin Ross is talking about (is when) he’s talking to his attorneys.”
Investigators have been looking into whether Ellis had steered county contracts to companies with ties to Ross, his former campaign manager, who has not been charged. Ross’ attorneys say he has done nothing illegal.
Craig Gillen said he and two other attorneys representing Ellis received letters saying their calls were intercepted. Gillen said he knows of eight or nine lawyers who have gotten the letters.
Gillen would not estimate how many people have been contacted, saying that “every single day someone calls saying they got a letter.”
“It is shocking they are recording conversations between Mr. Ellis and his 83-year-old mother, Mr. Ellis and his sister, Mr. Ellis and his religious counselor, Mr. Ellis and his attorneys,” Gillen said.
The law requires investigators to “minimize” the amount of time listening in to calls or conversations not pertinent to the investigation.
“I don’t know if these calls were minimized or not,” Gillen said. “They have yet to produce a single piece of paper in discovery nor a single recording in discovery.”
The trial was originally set to begin Aug. 19 but was delayed less than two weeks before it was set to start. No new date has been set.
Those whose phone calls are intercepted are supposed to be alerted within 90 days unless prosecutors get a judge’s approval to extend the notification, Gillen said.
In January 2012, a special purpose grand jury started looking into bid-rigging and contract fraud in the county’s Department of Watershed Management but ultimately expanded the investigation to look into allegations that Ellis illegally pressured county vendors into giving him political donations. The wiretaps ceased just before the special grand jury finished its report Jan. 18. The report was then sealed. That report was released last month, roughly about the time the letters hit the mail.
DA spokesman Burton said that timing was coincidental. “One thing didn’t have anything to do with the other,” he said. Asked about the complaints that the attorney-client privilege may have been violated, he said, “They can hash that out in a court injunction.”
Gillen has said that the DA “improperly lured” Ellis into testifying before the special grand jury not knowing that he had been secretly recorded. Defense attorneys also say James’ office improperly used the special purpose grand jury to find evidence that was used in the criminal investigation.
Kirschenbaum said Clay Nix, a detective for the DA, was chief investigator for both investigations. Some of the findings in the special and criminal grand juries overlap. For instance, the special grand jury report refers to a contract with a firm called NPI, saying “recordings indicate that CEO Ellis gave the directive to ‘just dry them up’ meaning to not issue any additional work to NPI under its contract.”
The criminal indictment said that around Oct. 1, Ellis told a county purchasing agent to cut off NPI from further work because the firm would not give donations.
The special purpose grand jury report referred several times to Ellis being recorded, without referencing whether those were wiretaps where neither party speaking knew they were recorded or if those were cases where a vendor was secretly recording Ellis or was wearing a wire. It appears there may have been recordings made before the December and January wiretaps.
While there is no official estimate of the number of calls intercepted, Kirschenbaum said he expects it will be huge.
“Think of 30 days of conversations,” he said, “then you can imagine all the conversations you have when running a county.”
He said word of the secret recordings has caused widespread consternation.
“Anyone who learns he’s been tapped will have an unsettled feeling,” Kirschenbaum said. “Think of 30 days of conversations you’ve had. You go back and think of all those conversations. What if you called and were saying something disparaging about a third person or were talking politics.”
Angelo Fuster, a political consultant who has known Ross for decades, is wondering exactly how his intercepted conversation went.
Fuster said he called Ross after his office was searched. “I said, ‘Kevin, I’m sorry for this (expletive).’ “