Details became clearer Tuesday that investigators were seeking evidence pointing to racketeering, bribery, theft, bid rigging and fraud when they searched the home and office of
DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis.
Another dimension unfolded when it was learned that a search was also conducted Monday at the Norcross office of attorney and political consultant Kevin Ross, Ellis’ former campaign manager and the counsel to several vendors whose contracts with the county were specifically listed in the search warrants.
The search warrants executed Monday at Ellis’ home and office and some county offices — which were obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution — sought the following:
- Ellis’ personal finance records, including bank accounts, retirement accounts and tax returns.
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- Records involving contributions to his political campaigns.
- Emails exchanged with county staff in charge of contracts, legislative links and the Police Department.
- Expenses charged to his county-issued American Express card.
Ellis, who was testifying before a special grand jury investigating allegations of kickbacks in the county’s water and sewer department when the searches occurred, has denied any wrongdoing on his part.
Tuesday, Ellis stood by his comments that he would continue to cooperate with the investigation and that he had never promised county contracts to campaign donors.
As the top administrator in DeKalb, Ellis has the power to cancel millions of dollars in county contracts.
Ross, whose political consulting career stretches back to assisting in Bill Campbell’s two successful runs for mayor in Atlanta, issued the following statement through a third party:
“As a lawyer and consultant, I have conducted my business affairs in an honest and forthright manner. In this regard, I saw no reason for the search warrants which were issued yesterday. My concerns aside, I respect and will cooperate fully in any investigation being undertaken.”
County contracts involving Ross could play a part in the probe, based on the records and computers investigators took Monday from the county’s purchasing, elections, Internet technology and finance offices, according to the documents obtained by the AJC.
In 2010, Ross admitted to urging Ellis to cancel and rebid contracts held by competitors of firms he represented. One company that Ross worked for, Rural/Metro Ambulance, later got the contract for medical transport without a public bid, since the cancellation forced an emergency need that suspended usual rules.
Several criminal defense lawyers not involved in the case but familiar with the details of Monday’s searches said it remains unclear where the investigation is headed.
Don Samuel, a criminal defense attorney in Atlanta who reviewed the search warrants Tuesday, said that “anybody reading this would think (Ellis is) a target.”
“It doesn’t say that. …” Samuel said. “But it does mean investigators were able to convince a judge something illegal was happening.”
Most of the lawyers agreed that the allegations are mostly bare bones.
There is no evidence that state or federal authorities are also reviewing how DeKalb awards public contracts.
That, along with the lack of the arrest warrant that typically accompanies a search warrant, gives former DeKalb District Attorney J. Tom Morgan pause.
“My concern is, if you’re executing a warrant for an elected official, I hope it’s not a fishing expedition,” said Morgan, now a criminal defense attorney. “I want to see some cold, hard evidence.”
Other attorneys said campaign contributions don’t necessarily indicate wrongdoing. Vendors and would-be contractors often make campaign contributions as a matter of course. The projected political winners often grab the most cash, they said, as Ellis did in his three-way run for re-election last year.
Ellis raised $332,830 last year, more than double the $165,656 raised by his closest competitor, Jerome Edmondson.
“It sounds like everyday politics to me: You make campaign contributions, and in exchange, those contracts get special consideration,” said Max Richardson, a criminal defense attorney in Norcross. “Now, if you’re getting kickbacks and not serving the community, that’s another thing. But it’s hard to prove wrongdoing just because people make campaign contributions and some of them win contracts.”
That sort of speculation was missing from the county’s regular Board of Commission meeting Tuesday morning. None of the commissioners discussed the search warrants, nor did any residents take up the issue during public comment.
Instead, commissioners handled several routine items in their first meeting of the new year. Among them was naming a new presiding officer. Commissioners elected Lee May to serve in the role, held for several years by Commissioner Larry Johnson.
The job mostly involves overseeing the commission’s weekly meetings. But, according to the county’s organization act, the presiding officer also becomes interim CEO if that job becomes vacant after a resignation or removal.
May said Tuesday afternoon that he had not given any thought to that possibility. He said he, like the rest of county officials, were shocked by Monday’s searches and were still trying to understand what it all means.
“That is not the Burrell I know,” May said concerning the speculation of wrongdoing against a man who is often a political rival. “All I can say is, I think we have to let this investigation run its course and let the truth rise to the top.”