DeKalb report: Corruption spans administrations, all levels of government

What’s next?

There is no legal requirement for any government agency to act on the recommendations from a yearlong probe into DeKalb County contracts. However, action appears likely on the two main recommendations.

More investigations, indictments. The DeKalb District Attorney's Office has said in court arguments that the report is the basis for several "ongoing criminal investigations" and additional indictments are expected.

Debate over ditching the CEO form of government. The call for a change to DeKalb's CEO-Board of Commission structure has already been taken up by interim CEO Lee May. May expects a proposal to abolish the CEO job will be a priority on the county's legislative wish list, to be taken up by state lawmakers when the Legislature convenes early next year.

Ellis goes on trial. The 15-count indictment against Ellis accusing him of extortion and theft will likely go to trial.

More corruption allegations

A DeKalb special-purpose grand jury investigating contracting in the county’s water department and beyond recommended criminal charges for former DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis and criminal investigations for other top DeKalb administrators. Ellis has been charged with a crime. He has pleaded not guilty.

Former CEO Burrell Ellis

Ellis, who served as CEO from 2004 until his suspension in July, has been charged with 15 counts of attempted extortion, theft and conspiracy stemming from allegations that he strong-armed contractors into giving to his campaign. The grand jury investigation says Ellis engaged in bid-rigging by steering contracts to preferred companies.

Former CEO Vernon Jones

Served as CEO between 2000 and 2008. The report claims Jones may have used his office to engage in bid-rigging. It recommends a criminal investigation.

Former public safety director William ‘Wiz” Miller

The report recommends a criminal obstruction-of-justice investigation into allegations that Miller halted a DeKalb police investigation into bid-rigging.

Former chief of staff Jabari Simama

Simama, who served as chief of staff under Ellis, is accused in the report of manipulating the committees that award contracts. The report recommends a criminal investigation into possible bid-rigging.

Former Ellis campaign manager Kevin Ross

Ross ran Ellis’ first campaign for CEO, and the report accused him of using his influence in the administration to steer contracts to clients he represented. The report recommends a criminal investigation into possible bid-rigging.

Looking out for you. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has followed the special-purpose grand jury investigation into DeKalb contracting for more than a year. In an effort to bring transparency to the investigation, the AJC and its reporting partner Channel 2 Action News on Wednesday urged DeKalb Judge Gregory Adams to release the report. It had been under seal since January. The AJC will continue reporting in-depth on the investigation into DeKalb contracting and advocating for transparency.

The findings of a yearlong investigation into allegations of bid rigging and kickbacks in DeKalb County contracts, made public for the first time late Wednesday, allege a culture of corruption that spans two administrations and runs from the top job in Georgia’s third-largest county down to workers and contractors in the watershed department.

Now-indicted CEO Burrell Ellis is the only person the report recommended be charged with crimes. But it says former CEO Vernon Jones and 10 others - including Ellis’ former chief of staff, public safety director and campaign manager - should be criminally investigated for their possible roles in manipulating contracts, theft and obstruction.

Jones criticized the report and said there was no basis for him to be investigated.

The report, completed in January but shielded from public view since, also calls for abolishing the powerful CEO position, saying the unusual government structure helps foster the culture where such corruption was tolerated and flourished.

“There was a pattern of behavior that was shocking to us,” Albert Trujillo, the retired insurance executive who served as the special grand jury’s foreman during its investigation, said in an exclusive interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Hearing testimony from watershed, we concluded we needed to look at the contract awarding process, which is centralized under the CEO and manipulated for personal gain.”

The question now is how much weight the recommendations will carry for future action.

Gwinnett District Attorney Danny Porter, who was involved in his county’s special-purpose grand jury investigation, said there is no legal requirement that any government agency follow the recommendations.

But more actions appear likely.

Through a spokesman, DeKalb District Attorney Robert James declined to comment about potential further criminal investigations. However, an assistant DA said in open court just last week that the office is engaged in “ongoing criminal investigations” related to the report.

And, interim CEO Lee May and several county commissioners have already pledged to ask state lawmakers to eliminate the county’s current structure – and the CEO position – in the upcoming legislative session.

That paves the way for huge upheaval based on the 81-page report that Ellis and his former campaign manager, Kevin Ross, fought for seven months to keep under seal.

As their court battle over the special grand jury’s civil investigation dragged on, James had Ellis indicted in June, on 15 charges that include felony counts of attempted extortion, theft and conspiracy.

The report details what led to those charges, accusing Ellis of shaking down county vendors for campaign donations. All three of the companies listed in Ellis’ criminal indictment are named in the report, which includes references to having Ellis on tape.

But it also claims that Ellis, twice elected to DeKalb’s top job, directed staff to cancel other contracts and influenced review panels to give business to specific firms, including those represented by Ross.

The report claims his predecessor, Vernon Jones, also rigged bids during his eight-year tenure as CEO and should be investigated for those alleged crimes.

Also recommended for investigation: former public safety director William ‘Wiz” Miller, for allegedly halting a DeKalb police investigation into the corruption; and former chief of staff Jabari Simama, for allegedly rigging bids and manipulating contract selection committees.

Several lower-level watershed employees and contractors are also singled out for further investigation.

Ellis could not be reached Wednesday but has repeatedly denied wrongdoing and pledged to fight the allegations.

Speaking from home Wednesday, Miller said he did not interfere in the investigation into watershed management and welcomes any further investigation.

Ross’ lawyer, Seth Kirschenbaum, said late Wednesday he had not been able to fully digest the report.

“Grand juries operate in secrecy and this is only one side of the story,” Kirschenbaum said. “Kevin Ross is an honorable man who has not broken any laws.”

Simama, now the president of Georgia Piedmont Technical College in DeKalb, said he had not seen the report and declined to comment.

Jones released a statement Wednesday blasting the report.

“That report appears to be a political … statement as to who should have been elected to run the county government and has no factual foundation or legal basis to recommend any criminal investigation against me,” he said.

Jones’ lawyer, Dwight Thomas, said, “This was an out of control, ill-informed, star-chamber grand jury. Vernon has done absolutely nothing wrong.”

Thomas said that former DA investigator Clay Nix met with Jones and Thomas before Jones went before the grand jury and during that conversation Nix said all he wanted Jones to testify about was how the county government was run. Nix also told them no one had accused Jones of any wrongdoing, Thomas said.

When Jones went before the grand jury, he was asked about his personal life, his relationship with Bishop Eddie Long, whether he attended gambling parties and the purchase of the new county police headquarters, Thomas said. Jones, following his lawyer’s advice, declined to answer questions.

Trujillo, the jury’s foreman, said he and other jurors were shocked when witnesses refused to answer but even more surprised as evidence of systemic wrongdoing began to build. He said the jurors agonized over their duty to understand how business was handled in DeKalb, the only county in the state with an elected CEO, effectively a mayor with huge power over daily operations.

For instance, DeKalb’s charter, called an organizational act, specifically prohibits the commission from adopting a purchasing policy that would clearly lay out rules for the hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts the county handles yearly. Instead, it awards the CEO with the power to develop all purchasing rules, without outside oversight.

When the commission does push for changes the charter appears to allow, such as last year’s budget effort to move auditors from the CEO-controlled finance department to working for the commission, there is little recourse if the CEO vetoes the change as Ellis did.

The report singles out those cases as well as as the allegations of corruption, to say the system is at fault.

“The CEO’s job is a political job that serves no real purpose,” Trujillo said. “We have to take on these structural problems, or else it’s all going to happen again. Now that the report is out, we have to talk about this and really push for change.”