Contractor letter sheds light on Ellis case

Company says it lost business after refusing to contribute

A DeKalb County contractor claims that the county took away its business after it refused to make campaign contributions and then awarded the work to a competitor that did make a donation, according to records obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The allegations by Power & Energy Services are contained in a letter from the company’s attorney to the county dated Feb. 14. The letter, obtained by the AJC through the Open Records Act, offers a glimpse inside the public corruption case the state is trying to build against DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis, who was indicted in June and suspended from office in July. Ellis pleaded not guilty to the 15-count indictment on Monday.

Ellis’ spokesman said Ellis had nothing to do with the contractor’s county work.

Power & Energy Services, based in Austell, contends that DeKalb officials told the company it was being blackballed from receiving work under a contract it already had with the county. Power & Energy claimed that a competitor received the work that should have gone to Power & Energy and charged “substantially higher amounts,” according to the attorney’s letter.

The competitor was Prime Power Services, also based in Austell. The indictment charges that, on Sept. 27 or Sept. 28, 2012, Ellis ordered the county’s purchasing director to stop giving work to Power & Energy. On Oct. 2, state records show, the founder and CEO of the competing company donated $1,500 to Ellis’ campaign.

Addie Mathes, who heads Prime Power, did not return messages seeking comment for this article. And thus far, none of the vendors identified in Ellis’ indictment has spoken publicly about the issues surrounding the indictment. Power & Energy’s CEO, Brandon Cummings, did not return calls or emails. The attorney who wrote the letter in Power & Energy’s behalf, John A. Roberts, reached by phone, said he no longer represents the company and declined to comment.

Ellis’ spokesman, Jeff Dickerson, said in a statement, “You will find no evidence that Burrell Ellis influenced whether Power & Energy Services received county work, because Ellis never exerted any such influence.”

The AJC has reported previously that Ellis ordered county staff to compile special lists of vendors signing the latest county contracts so he could solicit them for donations. The indictment accuses him of instructing the county’s purchasing director to keep two companies from getting future work and threatening to blackball a third company.

Roberts’ letter claims that, after Power & Energy declined to make campaign donations, “they were told by other related DeKalb County officials that they had been instructed not to give our client the contractual work for which they were awarded.”

That warning, Roberts wrote, became reality: “Our client has received no further work.”

“We have in hand the records which show that the contracted vendor, our client, was excluded and Prime Power was given the work and charged substantially higher amounts to the county,” Roberts wrote.

The letter also insinuates that Prime Power got the recent work because it donated to DeKalb election campaigns, presumably Ellis’.

Roberts noted that Prime Power “is listed as a contributor” to DeKalb campaigns. Ellis is the only DeKalb candidate to receive a donation from Mathes or her company, according to campaign contribution data.

Ellis’ indictment alleges that Ellis told Walton to insert a false note in Power & Energy’s file, stating that the company officials didn’t return phone calls. The AJC filed a records request for that file, including the note, but county spokeswoman Jill Strickland said such records “never existed.”

While those incidents allegedly occurred in the fall of 2012, the county has inappropriately taken work from Power & Energy and given it to Prime Power dating back to 2008, Roberts alleges.

Power & Energy landed its first contract from DeKalb on Oct. 14, 2008, Roberts wrote.

On that date, the county commission awarded Power & Energy a portion of an annual contract for inspecting, maintaining and repairing diesel engines, generators and accessory equipment, according to commission minutes. That portion was worth about $16,000 to the company. Prime Power got the lion’s share of that contract, estimated at $353,000.

For that contract, the county only called upon Power & Energy twice to do work at its water treatment facilities, Roberts wrote. All the while, he wrote, “the county was calling Prime Power to perform the work under the terms of the contract awarded to Power & Energy Services.”

In 2011, Power & Energy bid for another contract. The only other competitor was Prime Power, which has received DeKalb contracts as far back as 2003. However, once Power & Energy emerged as the low bidder, Roberts alleged, the county “re-bid” the contract.

During the second bid process, in November 2011, Prime Power officials apparently failed to attend mandatory pre-bid meetings and site visits. The AJC obtained copies of the county’s “invitation to bid” document describing contractors’ attendance as compulsory. The newspaper also obtained signup sheets filled out by contractors at the pre-bid meeting. No one representing Prime Power is listed on the sheets.

In his letter, Roberts says that one county official, identified as the facilities manager, “was noticeably upset” by Prime Power’s absence and that another official, identified as the contract administrator, said that Prime “would not be considered for the bidding process” as a result.

Ultimately, however, the county split the contract in two, awarding half to Power & Energy and half to Prime Power, according to commission minutes.

When Power & Energy asked the two officials asked it didn’t get the full contract, Roberts alleges, the two offered this response: “That’s the way it is!”