Ellis: “No plans” for stepping down in DeKalb

The case against Ellis

A DeKalb County grand jury indicted CEO Burrell Ellis on 15 criminal counts last week, 14 of them felonies. The charges include theft, conspiracy and extortion. Ellis has yet to enter a plea, but he said publicly he is not guilty. Below is what the indictment alleges.

  • Prosecutors allege in two counts that Ellis threatened to withhold county business from the IT vendor CIBER Inc. after an employee said she and the firm would not contribute to Ellis' election campaign. One charge claims Ellis told the worker he would report that she provided poor customer service if she did not give.
  • Five counts accuse Ellis of making sure Power and Energy Services, an Austell equipment sales and service company, did not receive work with DeKalb after the owners and an employee either did not respond to campaign solicitations or declined to give. Two charges claim Ellis instructed the county's purchasing director to write a false note in the company's file, describing them as non-responsive to explain why they no longer received contracts.
  • Five counts allege that Ellis ordered the purchasing director and department staffers to compile a list of county vendors for his use in campaign calls. Theft and fraud charges refer to stealing the workers' time — on taxpayers' dime — to do the work, as well as deliver the list to an off-site office. Two coercion charges claim Ellis forced those who worked for him to help with his political efforts.
  • Three counts accuse Ellis of directing the purchasing director to stop honoring a contract with real estate firm National Property Institute of Ellenwood after the company did not give to his campaign. The counts also allege that Ellis ordered the county's community development director to arrange a meeting with the firm over the lack of donations.

A defiant Burrell Ellis took to the stage twice Monday, once in front of more than 300 county employees, to make it clear he believes DeKalb County is on track – and he plans to be the one to keep it that way.

The two events, the second with his team of attorneys, were the first public appearances since Ellis spoke briefly to the media hours after a grand jury indicted him Tuesday on 14 felony counts, including extortion, theft and conspiracy.

Prosecutors allege Ellis shook down vendors for campaign contributions in exchange for securing or keeping county contracts.

Moments after again denying any wrongdoing and trying to rally county workers blindsided by the indictments, Ellis said he would not consider stepping down as CEO to focus on the charges.

“I have no plans to do that. None,” Ellis said in exclusive comments to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

By month’s end, Gov. Nathan Deal is expected to name a three-member panel to review the charges and recommend whether the governor should remove him from office until trial.

That uncertainty, and the 14 felony charges, drew a packed crowd of county workers to hear Ellis’ address.

One five-year veteran of the county, who did not give her name over fears for her job, said she was disappointed that Ellis’ struggles overshadowed rumors that workers could see pay raises this year.

Many others, though, said they were encouraged that an almost-ebullient Ellis took time to commend them for successes such as holding sanitation rates steady.

Ellis, though he maintained much of his regular scheduled, had avoided public meetings where he could be questioned about the allegations.

“Morale was down,” said Karl Head, a crew worker in roads and drainage for nine years. “Listening today brings it back up a little.”

With the latest turmoil and allegations about strong-arming contractors, it likely will take take more than a lunchtime rally to boost DeKalb’s image. Already this year, DeKalb residents saw Deal remove the majority of the school board over threats to the district’s accreditation and the district attorney serve search warrants on Ellis’ home and office, looking for evidence of political corruption.

For counter-balance, the county should change its purchasing rules so that any person or business who donates to campaigns cannot bid for work, at least in the same year as the donation, said David Poythress, a former state labor secretary and secretary of state who now serves on Common Cause Georgia’s board.

“You want to avoid the reality of impropriety as much as the appearance and the opportunity,” he said. “To the extent you can de-link money from politics, you improve the quality and perception of your government.”

County commissioners said Monday they would be willing to discuss options but noted that the county’s organizational act invests the CEO with the rights to handle purchasing rules.

That means the state Legislature would have to take up changing the organizational act, and potentially scrapping the CEO structure as has been discussed for years.

Any of those actions could take months. In the meantime, Ellis said he will not be distracted from his job to lead day-to-day operations in the county of 700,000.

On tap this week is the groundbreaking for a new senior center in Central DeKalb and a new police precinct in the southern part of the county.

“They cheer you when you’re up and they throw things at you when you’re down,” Ellis told the employees, comparing his efforts to LeBron James’ work becoming MVP of the NBA championship last week. “But it’s in the arena where you make all the difference.”