Business owner: Ellis threatened him for campaign donation

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As investigators listened in, suspended DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis mixed official county business with political fund raising during a recorded phone call with a county contractor played in court Wednesday during his corruption trial.

During the call, Ellis told Brandon Cummings, the co-owner of a company that services and repairs generators, that he had considered cutting the county’s contract with the Cobb County company. Ellis then asked Cummings for a $2,500 contribution for his 2012 re-election campaign, explaining that it was in his company’s best interest to have good government in DeKalb County.

“If I’ve got to sit down and explain to you why you would want to support the [DeKalb] county government …,” Ellis said on the Sept. 27, 2012, phone call that was played in court. “I would think that you all would have an interest in supporting good government, and that’s what I represent. Good government.”

Ellis is on trial fighting charges that he used his position as the leader of one of Georgia's largest counties, with about 713,000 residents, to strong-arm county vendors into making campaign contributions. Ellis raised $1.5 million for his campaign, and he easily won a second term during elections in 2012.

Cummings testified Wednesday that he interpreted Ellis’ call as a threat that DeKalb County wouldn’t give future business to his company, Power and Energy Services, unless he made a donation. Cummings said he didn’t pay, and about a month later, his company stopped receiving work under a generator-servicing contract worth up to $250,000.

On Thursday, prosecutors plan to play more recordings as well as call Burrell’s former chief of staff, Hakim Hilliard, to the stand.

Ellis' conversation with Cummings went to the heart of the accusations against him: That he extorted businesses into giving him campaign money and punished those who wouldn't contribute.

“I’m not asking you to make a charitable contribution. I’m asking you to make a campaign contribution,” Ellis told Cummings during the call. He said the conversation was uncomfortable.

“I felt threatened,” Cummings said from the witness stand Wednesday. “If I give him money, all of this will go away and it will be better now, that’s what I was thinking.”

Later Wednesday, the retired director at Watershed Management testified that he was told not to give any more work to Cummings’ company.

Joe Basista said he argued the Austell company’s had provided quality service and they were the agency’s “preferred” vendor.

Still, he was told by the county’s Department of Purchasing and Contracting department that it would not approve any more business for Power and Energy Services.

The memo went out on Oct. 19,2012, just weeks after Cummings told Ellis he would not contribute his re-election campaign, prosecutors said.

It’s legal for political candidates to solicit contributions from vendors, but an official can’t agree to do anything in return.

One of Ellis’ defense attorneys, Dwight Thomas, questioned whether Cummings led Ellis on by failing to give a definitive answer about contributions.

Cummings acknowledged he worked with prosecutors during his recorded conversation with Ellis about both county contracts and solicitations for campaign donations.

Earlier Wednesday, the co-owner of the company, Cumming’s wife, testified that she didn’t think it was appropriate to give Ellis a political contribution.

“It seemed like it was a conflict of interest,” said Danice Cummings. “He was soliciting a contribution from us. It had nothing to do with servicing the county generators.”

Testimony in the trial began Tuesday, and it could last between four and six weeks. But prosecutors said in court Wednesday the case was progressing faster than they expected.

If Ellis is found guilty, he could face up to 20 years in prison for the bribery charge. If he’s acquitted, he’d serve the rest of his term as DeKalb’s elected CEO.

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