DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis is back.
After serving an eight-month prison sentence for attempted extortion and perjury, Ellis will return to power as a short-term leader of a county government trying to put corruption scandals in the past.
Ellis will complete the last three weeks of his term in charge of DeKalb’s $1.38 billion annual budget and 6,000 government employees. He’s been suspended from office since he was indicted in July 2013.
Ellis and his lead defense attorney couldn’t be reached for comment Monday, but county officials say they’re prepared for him to return to work as soon as Tuesday.
His reinstatement marked the immediate end of Interim DeKalb CEO Lee May’s time overseeing the county. Gov. Nathan Deal appointed May to replace Ellis until his criminal case was resolved.
May said residents should give Ellis the benefit of the doubt until CEO-elect Mike Thurmond takes over in January.
“I don’t think there’s cause for alarm. I really believe that CEO Ellis has the best interest of DeKalb County at stake,” May said. “I would ask whoever is anxious about him coming back to just give him a chance to operate and move forward.”
A jury found Ellis guilty in July 2015 of trying to shake down a county contractor, Power and Energy Services, for a $2,500 campaign contribution and threatening to end its $250,000 contract with the county. Ellis was also found guilty of perjury for lying under oath about his role in awarding county contracts.
But the Georgia Supreme Court threw out the convictions Nov. 30, ruling that Ellis didn’t receive a fair trial. The state’s highest court unanimously decided that a judge should have allowed Ellis’ defense attorneys to have other county contractors testify that they didn’t feel they were threatened after declining to donate to his campaign.
By winning his appeal, Ellis is entitled to back pay from the time since he was convicted, which could exceed $220,000. The Supreme Court also reinstated his law license, which had been suspended during the appeal.
“Justice has been served,” said DeKalb Commissioner Mereda Davis Johnson. “I’m glad he’s able to come back, get his back pay and be able to move forward with his life.”
As CEO, Ellis will have the power to govern county operations, fire employees and enforce government policies.
Commissioner Nancy Jester said she hopes Ellis and other government employees behave as professionals.
“I don’t have any reason to believe there will be any kind of payback or punitive policy or decision making,” Jester said. “I don’t think this event is going to impact DeKalb citizens in any way at the level of county operations and service delivery.”
While the appeal was pending, the 59-year-old Ellis was imprisoned for eight months at Long State Prison, a medium-security facility located southwest of Savannah.
Though his conviction was reversed, the charges remain. Incoming DeKalb District Attorney Sherry Boston will have to decide whether to seek a retrial.
Some elected officials said they remain optimistic about the future that will arrive after Ellis departs.
Come January, the county will have two newly elected commissioners and Thurmond in place as CEO.
“We’re going to move past what has transpired,” said Greg Adams, who won a runoff election this month for DeKalb Commission. “We’re going to work together to improve the image of the elected officials in DeKalb County.”
Voters twice elected Ellis to run DeKalb’s government, but he only served about six months of his second term before he was suspended.
Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton said Ellis earned his place at the top of county government, even though he only has a few days left in his term. She doesn’t expect him to make major changes in that short time, and the last commission meeting of the year is Tuesday.
“I’m sure it means a lot to him,” she said. “I can’t imagine anything productive could happen during the Christmas holidays.”
May said he spoke with Ellis and offered to assist in the transition to Thurmond’s upcoming administration.
“I’ve attempted to operate with the utmost level of integrity and transparency,” May said. “We’re one step closer to stability”
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