With just days left in his term, a triumphant Burrell Ellis returned to his position as DeKalb County CEO on Wednesday, saying he felt vindicated after the Georgia Supreme Court threw out his attempted extortion conviction.
Ellis' return to power is a victory after he endured a three-and-a-half year suspension, two criminal trials and eight months in prison. The charges against him are pending until incoming District Attorney Sherry Boston decides whether to bring him to court a third time.
He'll collect $222,556 in back pay that had been withheld since a jury found him guilty in July 2015. He plans to help prepare CEO-elect Mike Thurmond to take over in January.
“Why are we here? We’re here to finish the job we started,” Ellis said at a press conference outside county government headquarters in Decatur. “We said that we would make the citizens’ priorities the priorities of this county government.”
Ellis then escorted a crowd of supporters and media to his sixth-floor office, which had already been vacated by Interim CEO Lee May and redecorated with Ellis’ photos and supplies.
Ellis had been the most prominent DeKalb County official convicted after years of corruption scandals. Others found guilty included former Commissioner Elaine Boyer, former schools Superintendent Crawford Lewis and dozens of lower-ranking employees.
He had been suspended from office since July 2013 — most of his second term — while facing charges that he shook down county contractors for campaign contributions. After a jury deadlocked in his first trial, he was found guilty of attempted extortion and perjury in his retrial.
The Georgia Supreme Court overturned the verdicts Nov. 30, finding that Ellis was denied a fair trial because the judge didn’t allow him to solicit testimony from contractors who didn’t feel pressured to make political donations.
“They found there was a basic denial of justice,” Ellis said. “I do believe it vindicates us.”
He said he’ll dedicate his time to effective government operations, emergency preparedness, budget recommendations for 2017 and readying the county for Thurmond’s administration.
“Hopefully, this ugly chapter in DeKalb County history is over with,” said former DeKalb Sheriff Thomas Brown. “There were some things (in Ellis’ case) that made me look real hard. But I didn’t think it rose to this level” of prosecution.
DeKalb Commissioner Kathie Gannon called it a “travesty” that it took so long for the charges against Ellis to be rectified.
“One cannot undo the damage the entire ordeal has done to the Ellis family and to the county,” Gannon said. “Hopefully, this next few weeks will allow for positive closure for us all and a smooth transition to the new governing authority.”
Ellis was immediately reinstated Monday when the Georgia Supreme Court gave official notice it had overturned his convictions and sent the case back to the trial court. Ellis resumed working Wednesday.
Joel Edwards, a resident who supports Ellis, said many thought the prosecution was politically motivated, an assertion District Attorney Robert James has rejected.
“I think it was a conspiracy against Burrell Ellis,” Edwards said. “For the folks that believed in him and his leadership, I think it’s clear that he felt vindicated.”
Ellis declined to speculate about whether he would ever run for elected office again.
“That’s the burning question: What’s next? What we learned through this is just to savor the moment,” Ellis said. “Too often in life, we miss our blessings because we’re so focused on the next thing. I don’t say no to any option or any opportunity. I’m just going to move as God directs.”