Watershed Mgt. told to cut off vendor refusing CEO’s campaign request

4:32 p.m. — A retired official from the DeKalb County Department of Watershed Management testified Wednesday a hold was issued on authorizing work for an Austell vendor who had declined to contribute to the re-election campaign of suspended Chief Operating Office Burrell Ellis.

While Joe Basista was asked not to say in his testimony the reason he was given for cutting off Power and Energy Services, but said the order came from the head of the county’s purchasing and contract office, Kelvin Walton. “He (Walton) said he was closing the system down on Power and Energy Services,” Basista testified.

Basista also testified that the Austell company’s service had been good and they were the agency’s “preferred” vendor. “They provided quality work,” Basista said, noting that he had expressed that opinion when he was told to cut off the company.

Previously, the co-owner of the Power and Energy Services testified that Ellis had told him his contract had been cut off. Company owner Brandon Cummings said Ellis told him that during a phone conversation during which the CEO asked for a $2,500 campaign contribution that he refused to make.

3:13 p.m. — The judge in the corruption trial of the suspended DeKalb County Chief Operating Office rebuked a defense attorney for repeatedly asking about the terms of the service contract in effect at the time the then-CEO Burrell Ellis allegedly had all work for an Austell business put on hold.

Brandon Cummings, co-owner of Power and Energy Services, testified his company had received multiple calls to service generators assigned to DeKalb’s Department of Waste Management and those calls stopped after his business declined to make a $2,500 campaign contribution in 2012.

He also testified that in a September 2012 Ellis told him Power and Energy Services’ contract had been cancelled even though Cummings was not notified in writing.

Defense attorney Dwight Thomas argued, during his questioning of Cummings, that the contract allowed DeKalb to cancel the agreement “for any reason.”

Prosecutors say, however, that Ellis cut off Cummings’ business because he refused to donate to his political campaign.

“Mr. Thomas, what you’re missing is at the time Mr. Cummings and your client had this conversation that is at issue he already had the contract … and was performing under the contract,” Judge Courtney Johnson said, adding that the lawyer needed to stop asking about the cancellation terms in the contract signed earlier in 2012.

2:18 p.m.— Defense attorney Dwight Thomas, going word-by-word, pushed a business owner to explain what he meant in a secretly recorded phone conversation with now-suspended DeKalb County Chief Executive Officer Burrell Ellis, who was asking for a campaign contribution but also complaining about unreturned phone calls.

A recording the District Attorney’s Office made of a call between Brandon Cummings, co-owner of Power and Energy Services, captured Ellis aggressively asking for a campaign contribution and complaining about calls that were not returned and the information relayed by a company employee.

Thomas asked why Cummings didn’t call Ellis after their conversation in June during which the then-CEO asked for a campaign contribution. Cummings said he asked an office worker to tell Ellis as he would be out of the office.

Through most of the conversation recorded in September 2012 Cummings responded “right” when Ellis complained. The business owner struggled to avoid a confrontation as Ellis became more aggressive, frequently interrupting Cummings when he tried to respond.

Thomas asked Cummings if he was agreeing with Ellis when he said “right.”

“We’re you acknowledging the correctness?” Thomas said. “You don’t refute the correctness of his comments.”

Cummings said it was nothing more than a “mannerism” and was not to suggest agreement. “I was just trying to get through the conversation,” Cummings said.

Cummings told Ellis on the recording his company wasn’t in a financial position to make any donations to “charity” and Ellis quickly reminded him he was asking for a campaign donation, not a contribution to a charity.

Thomas asked why Cummings brought up giving to charities when that was not something Ellis had raised in the conversation.

12:08 p.m. — Defense attorney Dwight Thomas focused on why a business owner didn't personally return phone calls to suspended DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis and instead have a secretary relay a message declining to give to his re-election campaign.

Eventually Brandon Cummings, co-owner of Power and Energy Services, returned Ellis’ calls but it was after the DeKalb District Attorney’s Office had contacted him in the investigation into allegations that the then-CEO was using his power as the county’s top officials to raise campaign contributions.

The calls from Ellis were placed in June and July but they died down as the summer progressed, Cummings testified. They started again, after the summer primary and before the November general election.

Ellis was asking for $2,500 to help retire his campaign debt.

When Ellis called again in September, Cummings said he told the DeKalb DA’s office, which had already contacted him about the CEO.

Through his questions, Thomas tried to suggest that Ellis repeatedly called the Austell company because Cummings had not been direct when he spoke with the CEO the first time he called for a contribution. Thomas also suggested that Ellis called back several times because a company secretary told him that the business would not be giving his campaign any money “at this time.”

11:02 a.m. - In a recorded telephone conversation between a company owner and Burrell Ellis, the now suspended DeKalb Chief Executive Officer pressed for a $2,500 campaign contribution and at the same time questioned why the county should do business with Power and Energy Services if they don't respond to his calls.

Brandon Cummings followed his wife on the witness stand Wednesday to outline the requests for campaign contributions from Ellis in 2012. Ellis was asking for a $2,500 contribution to retire debt that he said remained even though Ellis had won the seat in the 2012 summer primary; there was no Republican running in the November general election.

Cummings said the phone call in September 2012, recorded by an investigator with the district attorney’s office, was uncomfortable. Cummings is heard reluctantly telling Ellis he was the owner of the company, which annoyed Ellis.

“The conversation got really difficult,” Cummings said. “He was reaching out for his personal reasons.”

Cummings pointed out to Ellis that he was based in Cobb County and not DeKalb and it would make more sense that if he were to give to a political campaign it should to to elected officials running in the county that was home to his company. Ellis responded he could follow that logic but in reverse, asking “why is DeKalb County doing business with a Cobb County business?’

Ellis also said in the recorded call: “If I have to sit down and explain to why you would want to support this county government… We select our leaders by electoral process and I would think y’all would have an interest in electing good government.”

Cummings said DeKalb had already quit calling Power and Energy Services, despite the contract that named Austell company the primary vendor to work on the Department of Watershed Management generators. Cummings said DeKalb had been using another Cobb County business to service its generators, Prime Power.

“He had already said he’s going to cut it (the contract),” Cummings said, adding that he worried about being able to pay his employees. “When I realized he reaffirmed the threat and the actions that were already there, I tried my best to keep it together. I’ve never had a call like that before.”

9:18 a.m. — Testimony Wednesday in the public corruption trial of suspended DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis began with the co-owner of an Austell company telling jurors how the business had to repeatedly deflect campaign solicitations from the elected official

Danice Cummings, co-owner of Power and Energy Services, said she had told her husband their company should not give money to an elected official in a county where they had a contract because it could send the wrong message.

“It wasn’t a good idea,” Cummings testified.

After the decision was made to not give political contributions and after a series of calls from Ellis, Cummings fielded a call from Kelvin Walton, head of purchasing for the county, and Cummings assured him that the business wanted to continuing servicing DeKalb’s generators; they had only declined to give money to a campaign.

On Tuesday, an employee of Power and Energy Services testified about three conversations she had with Ellis, each one tenser than the one before as she repeatedly told him the company did not want to give to his campaign.

Prosecutors, led by DeKalb District Attorney Robert James, say the man who once ran DeKalb government and oversaw its $1.2 billion annual budget also strong-armed county vendors into giving him campaign cash. They say Ellis illegally mixed county business with his 2012 re-election campaign by threatening county contractors unless they donated.

Power and Energy Services is one of the companies he allegedly pressured for a donation.

Ellis’ lawyers argued in opening statements that while Ellis was aggressive in raising campaign funds — $1.5 million — he never linked support for his re-election with winning lucrative county business.