As suspended DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis prepared to defend himself in court on corruption charges, the judge overseeing his trial repeatedly dismantled some of his possible defenses, court documents obtained Monday by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution show.
Prosecutors, who have charged Ellis with extortion and bribery, say the man who once ran DeKalb government and oversaw its $1.2 billion annual budget also strong-armed county vendors into giving him campaign cash.
Fighting those charges might be tougher than Ellis anticipated. Ellis can’t claim he was set up, Superior Court Judge Courtney Johnson decided in a series of rulings released Monday. Jurors can hear about vendors not included in the indictment who Ellis hit up for campaign contributions. His attorneys can’t question witnesses about whether they thought an alleged victim of Ellis’ was racist.
Additionally, the judge also found that 11,527 pages of documents submitted by Ellis attorneys can’t be used because they came in after deadlines had passed.
Fifteen months after Ellis was indicted on more than a dozen felony charges, opening statements are scheduled to begin Tuesday morning. A jury will finally get to listen to each side lay out what they intend to prove during the trial, which is expected to last four to six weeks. It’s metro Atlanta’s biggest corruption trial since former Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell was prosecuted in 2006.
Led by DeKalb District Attorney Robert James, prosecutors will try to show that Ellis shook down companies for campaign contributions. An indictment says Ellis illegally mixed county business with his 2012 re-election campaign by threatening county contractors unless they donated.
Ellis’ defense team, made up of some of the Atlanta area’s top attorneys, will likely argue that while he raised $1.5 million for his campaign, he didn’t link contributions to county business.
Johnson unsealed hundreds of pages of documents in the case Monday after a request by the AJC and Channel 2 Action News. She had sealed the records following prosecutors’ concerns that their publication by the news media could bias a jury.
Prosecutors, the documents show, will seek to undercut the idea that Ellis was simply being too aggressive.
“The evidence will not show that Ellis is simply a ‘heavy-handed campaigner,’ but will show that he is an extortionist,” wrote Deputy Chief Assistant District Attorney Leonora Grant in one of the documents.
Lawyers for Ellis had sought to blame one of prosecutors’ key witnesses, according to some of the newly revealed legal filings.
DeKalb County’s former purchasing director, Kelvin Walton, wore a wire to record discussions with Ellis about vendors and campaign fundraising, and many of those recordings are expected to be played for the jury.
“This case will rest upon whether the jury believed that Mr. Ellis committed crimes, or whether in our view Mr. Walton went in and raised topics … to achieve an objective, and that objective was not anything other than to try to get some kind of case against Mr. Ellis,” said Craig Gillen, Ellis’ lead attorney, in a court hearing Friday.
Johnson ruled Monday that Ellis’ lawyers can’t argue that he was “trapped,” “tricked,” “deceived,” “set up” or “coerced.”
A 12-person jury and four alternates is made up of 12 black women, two black men and two white women. It’s unclear which jurors will serve as alternates.
The unveiling of documents Monday exposed a series of previously hidden battles between each side, with Johnson usually ruling against Ellis.
Johnson agreed not to allow speculation about whether a company, Merrell Brothers, had racial biases after a recording of county employees referred to the vendor as an “old school redneck” and a “racist.” Merrell Brothers, an Indiana biosolids company, withdrew from negotiations on a $4 million contract with the county after Ellis allegedly asked the company’s chief financial officer for $25,000. That request is the basis of a bribery charge against Ellis.
Johnson also allowed prosecutors to present evidence of Ellis’ behavior with potential donors who weren’t named in the indictment.
During a secretly recorded conversation between Ellis and Walton, they discussed using a list of county vendors to solicit contributions, and they also talked about whether “six-figure” county employees had made contributions.
In one case, investigators found a campaign note handwritten by Ellis during a search of his office indicating that a county vendor, Whitehead Electric, would contribute after it received payment from the county, according to one of Johnson’s orders.
The note said, “He is waiting on check and will pay us then,” wrote Assistant District Attorney Christopher Timmons in an Aug. 27 motion.
After Whitehead was paid, the company contributed $2,000 to Ellis’ campaign.
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