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Updated: 11:23 p.m. Saturday, July 20, 2013 | Posted: 12:00 a.m. Saturday, July 20, 2013

DeKalb CEO’s calls caught some vendors off guard

Others find nothing wrong with requests for campaign money

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071613 ELLIS HEARING DT14 photo
DAVID TULIS / AJC SPECIAL
CEO REMOVED--DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis, right, listens as attorney Craig Gillen responds to a 14-count indictment at a hearing to determine if the charges against Ellis will interfere with his job running the state's third-largest county, Monday, July 15, 2013, in Atlanta. David Tulis / AJC Special

By Tim Eberly

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

DeKalb County had just awarded Joe Konenkamp’s company a $140,000 contract when the call came in.

Konenkamp assumed the call from Burrell Ellis, the county’s then-CEO, had something to do with the new contract.

Wrong.

Ellis wanted money for his reelection campaign. And he wasn’t going away easy.

» Ellis says DA abuses should halt prosecution

“He was just a sales guy from hell,” said Konenkamp, general manager of the alarm and special hazards division for Century Fire Protection. “Won’t leave you alone. Keeps knocking at the door. Keeps calling. Now, I never flat out said no. Because, here again, we’re working for the guy so I’m trying not to be mean to him.”

Konenkamp’s name and phone number are on a list that is central to the DeKalb County District Attorney’s Office’s criminal case against Ellis. A June indictment accuses Ellis of ordering county staff to compile special lists of vendors signing the latest county contracts so he could solicit them for donations.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained the lists, created from the county commission’s agendas, and contacted more than 125 vendors. More often than not, the vendors declined to comment or did not return a reporter’s message.

However, Konenkamp is one of nearly a dozen vendors who told the AJC they were contacted by Ellis or his campaign staff to donate to Ellis’ campaign. Aside from limited information provided in Ellis’ indictment papers, this is the first-ever glimpse into how the CEO apparently made use of the custom-made vendors lists.

Most vendors interviewed by the AJC say Ellis called them personally. Several said they were taken aback by Ellis’ solicitation, considered it a conflict of interest or felt pressure to give. Others indicated they were happy to donate and said Ellis is not the first elected official to come calling for cash.

Ellis has denied any wrongdoing. He could not be reached for comment. But the spokesman for his defense team, Jeff Dickerson, offered a refrain previously mentioned by Ellis and his attorneys: Asking businesses for campaign donations is standard fare in the political realm.

“It’s a fairly common practice among elected officials who are attempting to finance their campaigns to call people and ask them for donations,” he said. “It’s done all the time.”

But one of the vendors, Deric Cox, a sales representative for Action Tire Company in Forest Park, said he was shocked that Ellis would call him to solicit a donation.

“I knew, sooner or later, that was going to come out,” Cox said. “If you call enough people, somebody’s going to squeal … Is it right to call a vendor? My personal opinion, it doesn’t seem ethical to call a vendor and say, ‘I was wondering if you would donate to our reelection campaign.’”

Offended or not, feeling pressured or not, most of the vendors who spoke with the AJC gave to Ellis. Of those who didn’t, none reported that Ellis threatened to keep them from getting county work if they didn’t donate.

In the indictment Ellis is accusing of doing just that to three companies. A DeKalb County grand jury indicted him on 15 criminal counts, 14 of them felonies. The charges include theft, conspiracy and extortion, stemming from campaign donations Ellis allegedly sought from companies whose names are on those lists. Ellis’ indictment alleges he instructed the county’s purchasing director to keep two of the three companies that he had threatened from getting future work.

Dickerson said it reflected well on Ellis that none of the vendors who spoke to the AJC reported that Ellis threatened to take work from them.

“You’re not finding anyone who says there was a threat of a loss of business if they didn’t give,” Dickerson said. “And that, to me, seems to me to go to the heart of the indictment.”

‘He could make problems for us’

Konenkamp, whose company has an office in Duluth and maintains the fire alarms and security systems at DeKalb’s government buildings, described Ellis as “very pushy. He was on a mission.”

Konenkamp detailed what he said happened:

He said Ellis put words in his mouth, putting Konenkamp down as pledging to donate $2,500 when he had done no such thing.

“So I figured, ‘OK, well, I’m just going to forget that I ever spoke to you and every time I see your name come up on my phone – because I saved his number – I’ll ignore you,” Konenkamp recalled in a phone interview last week. “And I did that for a while.”

Ellis eventually called back from a different number, seeking the money he claimed Konenkamp had promised him.

“And I said, ‘Mr. Ellis, I didn’t promise you $2,500,’ ” Konenkamp said. “And I can’t afford to give you $2,500.”

Ellis wanted Konenkamp to give him the name and number of a top official at the company. Konenkamp said no, that he’d have that person call Ellis, but only if that official wanted to donate.

However, Ellis somehow got the company CEO’s cell phone number and called him.

“He called him directly and says, ‘Joe Konenkamp told me that you were going to donate $2,500 to my campaign fund,’ ” Konenkamp said. “So, of course, my boss calls me, ‘What the hell? You told this guy we were giving him $2,500?’ “

Konenkamp told his boss it was exactly the opposite. In the end, Konenkamp split the difference and donated $1,250 in July 2012, according to Ellis’ campaign donation records.

Konenkamp said he felt “like it would be in our best interests to donate money. Because this guy’s in a position of power. He could make problems for us … It’s one of those situations where I felt like we were caught between a rock and a hard place and it was better to air on the side of ‘Let’s just go ahead and make the investment and not worry about it.’ “

‘There was no pressure’

Other vendors saw nothing wrong with Ellis’ solicitation.

Donald Stewart, Jr., president of asphalt manufacturing company Metro Materials in Doraville, heard from Ellis some time in the second half of 2012. He said it was Ellis’ personal touch that prompted him to donate.

“Because some of them [elected officials] send me a letter or an email,” Stewart said. “He made a personal call. I thought it was a little more cordial than letters, emails or having some underling call.”

Stewart said he didn’t feel pressure to donate.

“No, because I’ve said no before,” he said. “I felt honored that he asked and I made a fairly small contribution. There was no pressure. Or I didn’t sense any.”

Stewart’s company – and another company tied to Stewart – donated a combined $2,500 in March 2012, records show.

While Stewart said Ellis’ call was not out of the ordinary — he’s fielded numerous solicitations from county commissioners and CEOs over the past two decades — some vendors reported that it was unusual.

Jody Myers co-owns fire hydrant repair and maintenance company Georgia Hydrant Services, based in Loganville. In the more than a decade that the company has been open, Myers said he has never been contacted by any other elected officials seeking money, aside from the call he took from Ellis last year.

“That was the first time,” Myers said.

In October 2012, Myers, another official from his company and a corporation tied to Myers donated a combined $7,500, records show.

Myers said he “didn’t have too much of a problem” with Ellis’ request, saying the county’s been good to his company over the past decade.

He and his company had donated to Ellis in 2010, records show.

But Myers said the 2012 solicitation was akin to one’s boss asking subordinates to buy Girl Scout cookies from the boss’s daughter.

“You know you don’t have to buy Girl Scout cookies or whatever, but it couldn’t hurt,” Myers said. “You want your boss to remember your name in a good way.”

Myers said Ellis didn’t give him the impression that there would be repercussions if he didn’t donate, but he didn’t want to find out.

Konenkamp had the same feeling when he decided to donate.

“And, you know, we haven’t had any problems, so maybe it was money well spent,” he laughed.

In one of his conversations with Ellis, Konenkamp said he was curious about why the CEO had called him.

“I said, ‘How the heck do you know me?’ ”

In response, Ellis apparently referenced the lists that would help contribute to his political downfall, saying the general manager’s name “might have popped up because you’re a vendor to the county,” Konenkamp recalled.


Company

Action Tire Co., Forest Park

Family owned, founded in 1985. Automotive and commercial truck tire sales and service, fleet maintenance.

Contract

$439,500 for tires and tire recapping and repair

Awarded Aug. 14, 2012

Contribution

None

Contact

Deric Cox

Sales representative

“My personal opinion, it doesn’t seem ethical to call a vendor and say, ‘I was wondering if you would donate to our reelection campaign.’”

Company

Brown and Caldwell

Environmental engineering firm based in Walnut Creek, Calif., with dozens of offices nationwide, including one in Atlanta.

Contracts

$4 million extension of contract for eight engineering firms

July 12, 2011

Contributions

$500, 5/24/2011

$500, 10/27/2011

Contact

Greg Mooney

Former vice president for operations. Knows his staff was contacted by Ellis or his campaign.

‘In my awareness, we were never told, ‘Do this or else. Or we want you to do this. Or if you expect to get any business, you have to do this.’ I never heard anything along those lines.”

Company

Century Fire Protection, Duluth

Designs, crafts and installs fire protection systems for industry

Contracts

$140,000 to install and maintain “fire, intrusion, elevator and call box alarm systems.”

Date: May 8, 2012

Contributions by division general manager Joe Konenkamp

$250, July 23, 2012

$1,000, July 24, 2012

Contact

Joe Konenkamp

General manager, alarm and special hazards division

“He was just a sales guy from hell. Won’t leave you alone. Keeps knocking at the door. Keeps calling. Now, I never flat out said no. Because, here again, we’re working for the guy so I’m trying not to be mean to him.”

Company

Georgia Hydrant Services, Loganville

Fire hydrant repair and replacement in Georgia and five other states

Contracts

$1.6 million for fire hydrant repair and replacement

Nov. 13, 2012

Contributions

$2,500, Oct. 15, 2012 from Jody Myers

$2,500, Oct. 15, 2012 from Kelly Myers

$2,500 Oct. 15, from Myers Brothers Enterprises

Contact

Jody Myers, co-owner Georgia Hydrant

“It honestly didn’t really seem that (Ellis was threatening repercussions), but then again, I didn’t really want to try it to see. Any little bit I can help, if it’s a close call, maybe he’ll remember that I decided to help out.”

Company

Matrix Engineering Group, Tucker

Geotechnical, environmental and civil engineering and materials testing

Contracts

$232,000 for soil testing

June 28, 2011

$314,865 for soil and material testing

Aug. 28, 2012

Contribution

$1,500, July 20, 2012 by co-owner Amin Tomeh

Contact

Amin Tomeh, principal

“He didn’t make it sound like it was detrimental if we didn’t donate. He was calling and asking.”

Company

Metro Materials Inc., Doraville

Asphalt manufacturing

Contracts

$1,900,000 contract increase and extension for asphalt to repair county roads, March 15, 2011

$1,418,667 for asphalt to repair county roads, June 28, 2011

$1,400,000 for asphalt to repair county roads, Nov. 13, 2012

Contributions

$1,500, March 23, 2012, by Metro Materials

$1,000, March 23, 2012, by Stewart Brothers at same address

Donald Stewart Jr., president

“I felt honored that he asked and I made a fairly small contribution. There was no pressure. Or I didn’t sense any. He asked. I agreed. That was it.”

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