Witnesses key in case against Ellis

The story so far

A DeKalb County grand jury indicted CEO Burrell Ellis on June 18 on 15 criminal counts, 14 of them felonies. He is accused strong-arming vendors who do work with the county to contribute to his re-election campaign and threatening those who declined.

Gov. Nathan Deal, following the recommendation of a three-member panel, suspended Ellis from office on July 16. Deal then named DeKalb County Commission Presiding Officer Lee May as acting CEO.

District Attorney Robert James filed a motion July 25 requesting an August trial date in the case.

Ellis, who has denied wrongdoing, pleaded not guilty to all charges July 29. His legal team has filed a motion asking all charges be dismissed, which will likely lead to a hearing that has not yet been scheduled.

Cast of characters

Burrell Ellis: DeKalb County's chief elected officer, Ellis holds a post similar to a strong mayor in large jurisdictions, running nearly all of the daily business of Georgia's third-largest county. A former county commissioner and real estate attorney, Ellis was first elected CEO in 2008 and is now in his second term. He became a public target of a political-corruption case in January, when investigators from the district attorney's office searched his home and office and seized campaign records and county contracts. The results of that investigation remain under seal. The DA unveiled a 15-count indictment on separate accusations this year.

Robert James: DeKalb County's district attorney since 2011, James says a stint as an elementary school paraprofessional in a poor area of Atlanta helped steer him into prosecution. He is a former prosecutor in DeKalb and Rockdale counties who spent four years as DeKalb's solicitor. In his short tenure, James has taken the lead in prosecuting Hemy Neuman for killing Rusty Sneiderman and is working to convict Sneiderman's widow of several charges related to that case. He is expected to lead the prosecution of Ellis on the 14 felony charges and one misdemeanor he faces.

Craig Gillen: Ellis' lead attorney, Gillen has been a private defense attorney for 20 years. Before that, he served as the assistant U.S. Attorney in the Northern District of Georgia and was deputy independent counsel during the Iran/Contra scandal in Washington. His successes include the prosecution of Congressman Patrick Swindall in 1989 and serving as lead counsel in the indictment of former Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger.

J. Tom Morgan: Morgan served as DeKalb County's district attorney for 12 years. He led the prosecution of former DeKalb Sheriff Sidney Dorsey, who was convicted of corruption and murdering his opponent, sheriff-elect Derwin Brown. Morgan has more than 30 years of trial experience in Georgia and North Carolina. He has been in private practice since 2007.

Kelvin Walton: Walton has been DeKalb County's director of purchasing and procurement since 2007, having served as the department's deputy since his hiring in 2003. He is credited with earning the office its first excellence award from a national professional group in 2006. Walton is listed as an "unindicted co-conspirator" in the indictment against Ellis - suggesting he will be a key witness. In 2007, when he was serving as acting purchasing director, Walton told auditors he was ordered by the county's chief operating officer to OK multiple sub-$50,000 payments to vendors. Auditors later ruled those "splits" were done to avoid the threshold that would trigger competitive bidding, though no charges were filed.

Within weeks, a jury could be weighing a critical question in the high-profile political-corruption case of the DeKalb County CEO: Just who is Burrell Ellis?

Lawyers for the suspended CEO and Ellis himself have offered their narrative, of a civil servant who may have been aggressive and awkward in seeking campaign cash but whose behavior was never criminal.

DeKalb District Attorney Robert James paints a different picture of Ellis. The 15-count indictment alleges a politician so eager for campaign contributions that he strong-armed county vendors to give – and threatened those who would not give with loss of work.

Ellis’ lawyers have already countered with questions about James’ “abuse” of office, and legal watchers, contacted by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said there will also be similar challenges to the motives of the vendors who are likely to testify against Ellis.

“Arguably this case is about which side can get the jury to see it their way,” said Bruce Morris, an Atlanta defense attorney who is not connected to the Ellis case. “It always comes back to credibility.”

Beyond a handful of public documents, little is known about what evidence exists against Ellis. Through a spokesman, James has repeatedly declined to comment except to say he is ready for trial this month.

Ellis and his attorneys had gone public to deny wrongdoing and pledge a battle. They have used motions in the case to make their arguments so far.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked several attorneys how they expect the case will unfold. They agreed it is shaping up to focus on Ellis’ personality and the witnesses both for and against him. Typically, corruption cases are based on reams of paperwork.

Ellis’ defense team has been mum about who they may bring forward to back up his case.

Little is known, too, about the people listed as victims in the indictments, small business owners expected to take the stand to help the DA make his case.

One of the first battles over credibility has begun to play out, in the motion from Ellis’ lawyers to dismiss the case. They claim James intentionally misused a special grand jury, charged with civil issues, to improperly obtain the evidence that led to the criminal charges of attempted extortion, conspiracy and theft.

The special grand jury report remains under seal. But none of the three companies that Ellis is accused of shaking down were named in previous search warrants tied to the special grand jury’s work.

That report could become public if Superior Court Judge Courtney L. Johnson wants to see if there is a connection, said criminal defense attorney Steve Sadow.

Johnson has yet to set a hearing on the motion. But Sadow said the effort isn’t likely to derail the case.

“Even if the special grand jury went too far, do you shut them down just because they found evidence of a crime? I can’t find anything in the law to suggest that,” Sadow said. “In the back of their minds, they have to know they will have to challenge directly these claims being made.”

And that, legal observers say, brings the case squarely back to the indictment, which alleges Ellis tried to keep at least three companies from getting government work after they didn’t give money to him: CIBER, an information technology company; equipment sales and service firm Power and Energy Services of Powder Springs; and Ellenwood real estate firm National Property Institute, or NPI.

That image of Ellis runs counter to his public persona, where he is called Urkel by friends and foes alike for a personality that mirrors the nerdy ‘90s sitcom character.

The bespectacled Ivy-educated lawyer is known for not even raising his voice in political disputes – which could make the idea of him issuing threats seem far-fetched, said Jill Polster, a former DeKalb prosecutor who is now a defense attorney.

“Vernon, people loved or hated,” Polster said of flamboyant former CEO Vernon Jones. “You don’t get that from Burrell. He’s awkward and maybe when he’s asking for money, it’s awkward. That may be Burrell being Burrell – and a great defense.”

To challenge that image are witnesses who appear ready to tell of different experiences with Ellis that have the same storyline.

The indictment names four people from the three companies, including one woman who claimed Ellis threatened to complain about her work to supervisors if she didn’t donate to his campaign.

Five county employees are identified in the indictment, including Purchasing Director Kelvin Walton as an unindicted co-conspirator.

That description means Walton took part, knowingly or not and perhaps under threat, in Ellis’ alleged crimes.

That means he could be the most powerful witness of all — a county worker who can back up the vendors’ claims. Otherwise, the vendors’ complaints may appear to be sour grapes, by people who lost or failed to win contracts on the merits, said Atlanta defense attorney Don Samuel.

“Several people are saying the same thing and all are describing the same type of inappropriate pressure,” Samuel said. “If that’s the case, it begins to look less like a coincidence. The purchasing director can be the one who drives that home.”

One giant question mark could make the back-and-forth on who to believe moot: two audio discs that remain under seal as part of the special grand jury probe.

In January, DA investigators filed three search warrants, two seeking wiretaps on cellphones that yielded the audio. They did not execute the third warrant, on the phone number at the office Ellis used to make campaign calls at R. L. Brown & Associates architects.

Lawyers for Ellis express concern over the wiretaps in their motion but acknowledge they, too, are not aware if the CEO’s calls were recorded.

Uncertainty over that and other issues can only be resolved once hearings begin and the evidence starts to take firmer shape, experts said. Both sides, though, have dug in for battle.

“Robert must think he’s got it, or else he wouldn’t bring this case,” Polster said. “And Burrell is adamant there is no wrongdoing. It’s going to be a showdown.”