DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis has been indicted by a DeKalb grand jury today on charges he illegally pressured contractors into giving him campaign contributions.
The 15-count indictment includes 14 felonies. Among them, four counts of extortion, two counts of theft by taking and several conspiracy charges.
DeKalb District Attorney Robert James, in an afternoon news conference, said Ellis is charged with extortion and other felonies for soliciting campaign contributions under threat. Ellis has turned himself into the DeKalb County Jail and has been released, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has confirmed.
The indictment, as read by James, says Ellis extorted CIBER Inc., a vendor in DeKalb, by threating a local manager. It says Ellis threatened to tell CIBER’s CEO that the local manager, Joanne Wise, delivered poor customer service if she did not agree to a campaign contribution. The indictment said Ellis acted similarly with other vendors and used DeKalb employees to draft lists of contractors doing business with DeKalb for the purpose of extorting them for campaign cash.
Ellis spoke to the media at his home late Tuesday. On the advice of his attorneys, he would not speak to the charges. But he professed his innocence.
“I do want to make one statement emphatically to the good people of DeKalb County that I’ve done nothing wrong as I’ve said from the very beginning. Done nothing wrong and I would never, ever, ever do anything to violate the public trust,” he said.
At least one of Ellis’ colleagues thought the criminal charges put the entire county in a negative light.
“This is a sad day for DeKalb County,” said Commissioner Lee May, who serves alongside Ellis. “While every person is innocent until proven guilty, this ongoing saga has been a distraction and continues to bring unwelcome negative attention to our county and our government.”
For a year, a special grand jury investigated possible corruption in the county water and sewer department contracts and eventually it led to search warrants being executed at Ellis’ home and office and at the home and of attorney Kevin Ross, the CEO’s former campaign manager.
Ross was not indicted Tuesday. None of the companies named in the search warrants on Ellis and Ross seeking campaign records were included in Tuesday’s indictment.
Special grand juror Albert Trujillo, 72, said the grand jury’s investigation led to the office of the CEO. He said he was unsure if he could discuss specifics of the investigation, but he was pleased that the special grand jury’s work was apparently a blue print for the indictment.
Trujillo, a retired as an IT consultant, said he has lived in DeKalb since 1972 and he is saddened by all the negative publicity.
Ellis’ indictment comes just months after Gov. Nathan Deal removed five DeKalb school board members for mismanagement.
“Businesses shy away from a county that’s in disrepair when they have that many problems and they smell bad with all these problems,” he said. “… Why go and put your headquarters in a county which resonates with bad press. It breaks your heart.”
But those close to Ellis still say Tuesday’s indictment doesn’t square with the man they know, who was elected to DeKalb’s top job promising reform.
“I don’t know of any forced campaign contribution that Ellis ever attempted, and I worked in all his campaigns,” said Oliver Brown, a DeKalb political operative. “I’d be shocked (if this is true).”
The criminal charge alone means Ellis can be removed from officce.
DeKalb County Commissioner Jeff Rader said the law requires Gov. Nathan Deal to form an advisory committee headed by Attorney General Sam Olens.
If the committee recommends suspension and the governor implements it, then Commission Chairman Lee May would step in as acting CEO until Ellis either resigns or is cleared or convicted in court. “And that could go on for a long time,” said Rader, who added that Ellis hasn’t been around the administrative offices much since his home was raided by investigators in January.
Should Ellis get suspended, he’ll be the seventh elected official in DeKalb to meet that fate since March. That’s when a federal judge allowed Deal to suspend two-thirds of the county school board over an accreditation agency’s allegations about nepotism, financial mismanagement and other concerns.
Taxpayers such as Robert Richardson are disillusioned.
“Every elected official in DeKalb County seems to be a crook,” said 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, Ty Tagami and Steve Visser contributed to this report.
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