Battle lines drawn in trial of DeKalb CEO Ellis

ANGLING FOR A MISTRIAL--September 24, 2014 Dekalb: Suspended DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis is surrounded by his attorneys after they asked for a mistrial. The motion came after the prosecution's key witness, DeKalb County Purchasing Director, Kevin Walton, compared Ellis' behavior to a "murderer." The motion was denied and the trial continued. BRANT SANDERLIN / BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

Credit: BRANT SANDERLIN / AJC

caption arrowCaption
ANGLING FOR A MISTRIAL--September 24, 2014 Dekalb: Suspended DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis is surrounded by his attorneys after they asked for a mistrial. The motion came after the prosecution's key witness, DeKalb County Purchasing Director, Kevin Walton, compared Ellis' behavior to a "murderer." The motion was denied and the trial continued. BRANT SANDERLIN / BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

Credit: BRANT SANDERLIN / AJC

Credit: BRANT SANDERLIN / AJC


The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, in a story published last July, was the first to make public the vendor lists compiled for DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis that have become evidence in his ongoing corruption trial. The AJC has provided coverage of the Ellis case from the moment DeKalb authorities searched Ellis’ home 19 months ago through the corruption trial.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution brings our readers the most comprehensive coverage of the Burrell Ellis trial on our premium website, MyAJC.com/ellistrial/.

ON THE SITE

> Read the latest AJC stories and analysis about this case.

> Browse an interactive that identifies the key players in the trial.

> Watch reporter Mark Niesse’s video about the case and what’s at stake for residents.

> Read court documents and review a timeline of the corruption probe.

Two weeks into the corruption trial of DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis, jurors probably have a good idea how they will decide the guilt or innocence of one of metro Atlanta’s most powerful leaders:

Will jurors believe that Ellis, who stoically gazed straight ahead during long hours in court, used his authority to intimidate county contractors and fatten his $1.5 million 2012 re-election fund?

Or will they buy the argument that he didn’t care about the money, and his anger was directed at contractors who wouldn’t show him the professional courtesy of returning his phone calls?

Twice elected to run a government serving 713,000 residents, Ellis is fighting for his political life and his freedom. He has denied criminal accusations that he strong-armed businesses that refused to contribute up to $25,000 for his campaign.

The jury, which has at times broke into laughter during tense moments of testimony, focused its attention last week on a key witness: Kelvin Walton, the county's purchasing director who wore a wire to record Ellis and to appease prosecutors that had caught him lying under oath.

Portions of Walton’s recordings were played in court during four days on the witness stand, with a transcript displayed on screens for everyone to see.

While Ellis’ five-man defense team attacked Walton’s credibility — after all, he turned on his boss to save himself — Ellis’ own words might have been more important than Walton’s testimony.

In one of the secret recordings made by Walton and played for jurors, Ellis was upset with a construction company that wasn’t comfortable making a political donation to him.

“Nobody’s asking them to do anything in exchange, but they’re one of the biggest beneficiaries of our work,” Ellis said. “They just won’t give. And that’s going to be part of the conversation.”

But Ellis, a buttoned-down attorney himself, was also careful to avoid connecting political contributions to county business.

“I never can promise people that they can get work,” he said. “That’s illegal.”

Under questioning, Walton rejected the idea that vendors should have returned phone calls from Ellis, who signed his name on their contracts with the county.

Contractors knew why Ellis was calling, Walton said, and they had no obligation to return messages seeking campaign contributions.

“They should call the CEO back if it’s about county business. Campaign contributions are not county business,” Walton said Friday. “They know it’s personal. They’re not going to call him back.”

At times, Ellis’ lawyers appeared to be scrambling for any recourse.

They asked for mistrials several times, saying the jury was tainted when Walton compared Ellis’ behavior to a “murderer,” when a prosecutor called Walton a “co-conspirator,” and when Ellis’ secretary asserted her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination 30 times.

Each time, Superior Court Judge Courtney Johnson shot down those requests, but Ellis’ attorneys could claim she made a mistake if he’s found guilty and they appeal.

The 12-member jury and three alternates at times appeared sympathetic to witnesses, smiling when a lawyer for Ellis cut off Walton’s testimony and nodding with a businesswoman who talked about being pressured to contribute. The jurors include 11 black women, two black men and two white women.

During one outburst Friday, jurors laughed when a DeKalb employee said she had “a few curse words” when her superiors ignored her complaints about having to create lists of vendors for Ellis to call for donations.

Given Walton’s motivation to please prosecutors — he hasn’t been charged with perjury for his lies — the testimony from Ellis’ alleged victims may have carried more weight.

One witness, the chief financial officer of a biosolids company, said Ellis asked him to raise $25,000 soon after the company won a $4 million contract to dispose of wastewater.

The executive, Terry Merrell of Merrell Bros., said Ellis told him he had “a feeling” that an issue with the contract could be worked out. The company later withdrew from the contract.

“It felt wrong,” Merrell testified Tuesday. “It felt illegal.”

Another witness, Joanne Wise of Ciber Inc., said Ellis mixed politics with business.

She said Ellis told her, “Surely you’ve also personally benefited from this relationship, so can I benefit from your personal contribution?”

She didn’t donate, and the company decided not to work with DeKalb County because of a separate dispute over contract terms.

Officials from two other businesses previously testified about the consequences of donating.

Power and Energy Services, based in Austell, stopped getting jobs under a $250,000 contract with the county after it declined to contribute; the co-owners of another company, Ellenwood-based National Property Institute, said they were on the verge of losing a $1 million contract until they gave Ellis $2,500.

So far, all of the evidence in the case has come from witnesses called to testify by prosecutors. The defense will have its chance to present its side through witnesses this week.

Depending on how long the defense portion of the trial takes, the jury could begin deliberating as soon as this week.

ExploreComplete coverage of the Ellis trial on MyAJC.com.