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Updated: 3:55 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013 | Posted: 1:19 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013

As probe continues, DeKalb CEO hires attorney

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As probe continues, DeKalb CEO hires attorney photo
Kent D. Johnson / AJC
Attorney Craig Gillen speaks during a press conference as Dekalb County CEO Burrell Ellis and his wife, Philippa, listen Thursday, January 17, 2013 in Decatur.
As probe continues, DeKalb CEO hires attorney photo
Kent D. Johnson / AJC
Former Dekalb County DA, J. Tom Morgan speaks during a press conference as Dekalb County CEO Burrell Ellis and his wife, Philippa, listen Thursday, January 17, 2013 in Decatur.

By April Hunt and Bill Rankin

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The official reason DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis held a brief news conference Thursday was to announce his hiring of a powerful legal team to represent him in a widening political corruption probe.

But what Ellis emphasized was not the introduction of a former federal prosecutor who will lead three other criminal defense attorneys on his behalf.

Instead, he twice said that the cloud of suspicions from a special grand jury investigation is not distracting him from running day-to-day operations in metro Atlanta’s third biggest county.

“It is a distinct honor and privilege to serve as CEO and I will do all in my power to hold up that honor,” Ellis said. “My staff and I are at work doing the business of DeKalb County.”

That leaves attorneys Craig Gillen, J. Tom Morgan, John Petrey and Anthony Lake to do the business of defending Ellis.

Veteran defense attorneys had long expressed surprise that Ellis twice appeared before the grand jury without retaining a lawyer. Then last week, investigators from District Attorney Robert James’ office raided the homes and office of Ellis and his former campaign manager, attorney Kevin Ross.

Search warrants show agents seized campaign contribution records and county contracts, specifically with firms Ross represented after Ellis was elected. They were seeking evidence of racketeering, bid-rigging and other political corruption.

Those warrants also sought information about six companies. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation shows five of those companies have done more than $4 million worth of business with DeKalb since Ellis has been CEO. Ellis has received about $20,000 in campaign contributions, collectively, from the companies named.

Neither Ellis nor Ross has been charged with a crime. Both deny any wrongdoing.

Ross hired former U.S. Attorney Seth Kirschenbaum, who persuaded a judge to quash a subpoena requiring Ross to testify this week before the special grand jury. The legal motion argued Ross was a target of the investigation and therefore could not appear as a witness.

Now Ellis has his own legal dream team, to prepare for whatever James’ next step will be. No taxpayer money is being used for their fees.

Gillen is one of the most respected and feared courtroom lawyers in Georgia, other attorneys said. He won notable convictions as a federal prosecutor before becoming a defense attorney and winning acquittals for a string of high-profile clients.

Among them are the 2001 acquittal of reputed Mob captain Michael “Mikey Scars” DiLeonardo in the Gold Club racketeering trial and, a year later, dismissal of corruption charges against former state Sen. Van Streat.

More recently his clients have included former Gwinnett County Commission Chairman Charles Bannister and Bishop Eddie Long, neither of whom were charged with crimes. Bannister resigned as a special grand jury investigated county land purchases. Long was among mega-church pastors whose finances Congress investigated in 2007, and a lawsuit against him by four male church members alleging sexual misconduct was settled in 2011.

Gillen is “the best of the best,” said Don Samuel, a prominent Atlanta defense attorney. “He’s an incredibly talented courtroom lawyer and a great student of the law.”

Gillen will be joined by his law partner, Lake, as well as Morgan, a former DeKalb DA, and former chief assistant DA Petrey.

Morgan had spoken out on Ellis’ behalf last week, before the CEO retained him. Thursday, he reiterated concerns about the raids, which took place without Ellis’ knowledge while Ellis was appearing before the grand jury.

The raids come at the time of year when the CEO and county commission must agree on the county’s budget.

Commissioners met Tuesday for a staff presentation on the proposed 2013 budget. They are seeking resident input on the spending plan, in which Ellis called for a 1.69 mill tax increase, which would add about $49 more a year to the county tax bill for a home valued at $200,000. The board must vote on a budget by the end of February.

Commissioner Lee May, who heads the board’s budget committee, said he was focused on reducing that tax hike, not the speculation surrounding the investigation.

“We have our work to do,” May said. “The investigation can run its course. We will keep working.”

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