Final arguments set in trial of DeKalb CEO Ellis

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

>Browse interactives that identify the key players in the trial and recaps testimony from DeKalb Purchasing Director Kelvin Walton, the prosecution’s star witness.

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

>Review what star witness Kelvin Walton said during his testimony.

Under fire from prosecutors, DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis repeatedly rejected suggestions Friday that he abused his power to pressure businesses for campaign contributions, bringing to a close three weeks of evidence before a jury begins deliberating his fate Monday.

Ellis spent three days as a witness in his own corruption trial, standing up to questions from District Attorney Robert James in an effort to clear his name from bribery and extortion charges.

As he spoke to the jury, Ellis delivered a simple denial of accusations that he punished contractors who wouldn’t donate to his 2012 re-election campaign.

“I don’t get involved in who gets work and decisions not to give them work,” he said.

James tried to prove the opposite by replaying snippets of secretly recorded conversations in which Ellis said “cut the contract” of Power and Energy Services, which refused to contribute $2,500.

Ellis responded that his comment was taken out of context, and he would only end the company’s contract if it wasn’t interested in doing business with the county.

The two, both Democrats, have been at odds at least since January 2013, when James called Ellis to testify before a special grand jury investigating corruption in the county’s water department.

While Ellis was testifying that day, James ordered a search of Ellis’ home and office. Months earlier, James had outfitted the county’s purchasing director, Kelvin Walton, with a recording device to capture Ellis discussing contractors. A grand jury indicted Ellis in June 2013.

James sought to cast doubt on the idea that Ellis wouldn’t meddle with county business decisions, especially in the case of Power and Energy Services. The company had a $250,000 contract with the county but stopped receiving work after a confrontational phone call with Ellis about the company’s refusal to make a political donation.

“The decision to not give them work, I was not involved with. I gave an approval, I gave an OK to it,” Ellis said.

James then asked how Ellis wasn’t involved if he had approved Walton’s suggestion to stop giving jobs to the company.

“He told me about it; I said OK,” Ellis replied.

After the jury departed for the weekend, Ellis more clearly articulated his defense during a statement made for the court record.

“I never made any sort of linkage between whether somebody did or didn’t do business with the county based upon whether they did or did not contribute to my campaign,” he said.

The indictment against Ellis accuses him of crimes involving four county contractors:

  • Power and Energy Services, which did generator maintenance work, allegedly lost business when the county directed work to a competitor after Power and Energy refused to contribute to Ellis' campaign. Ellis has said he believed the company was deceitful when its owner wouldn't admit he was the company's president during a campaign fundraising call.
  • The owners of National Property Institute, which had a $1 million contract to rehab foreclosed homes, testified that they believed they were on the verge of losing their contract unless they contributed $2,500. After making the donation, the company kept getting work. Ellis said he had already decided to retain NPI before he knew the company had donated.
  • The chief financial officer of Merrell Bros., which had been awarded a $4 million contract for wastewater disposal, said in court that Ellis asked him for $25,000, which is the basis for a bribery charge because the maximum contribution allowed is $2,500. The company withdrew from its contract. Ellis said he wanted the company to raise the money from subcontractors or other business associates.
  • A representative for Ciber, which provided technology consulting for the county government, testified that Ellis told her that her company wouldn't get more business with DeKalb because she wouldn't donate. Joanne Wise then told Ellis the company wouldn't work with DeKalb anyway because of a contract dispute. Ellis denies making the threat.

Both the prosecution and the defense will be allowed up to two hours each for their closing arguments Monday before the jury begins deciding whether to find Ellis guilty or not guilty.

The 12-member jury and three alternates include 11 black women, two black men and two white women. Ellis could face up to 20 years in prison if he’s convicted on the most serious charge of bribery.