A visit to DeKalb County court this week was a jaunt to government’s seamy underbelly.
There at the front of Judge Courtney Johnson’s courtroom, his countenance dour, sat one Kelvin Walton, a well-dressed, sad-eyed plug of a man. Strategically positioned behind Walton, the star witness in the corruption case against suspended county CEO Burrell Ellis, was the Board of Shame. On it, prosecutors had scribbled the events in 2012 that led him to this perch: May 2, lied to Special Purpose Grand Jury; May 10, confronted by DA; Aug 12, wearing a wire.
On those secretly recorded tapes, Walton comes across as a fawning, eager-to-please yes man. On this day in court, he was was testifying about why Ellis, the guy he sucked up to on the tapes — who stared unflappably ahead throughout his testimony — should be convicted of extortion and conspiracy.
Walton is a weak-minded fellow with some larceny in his heart, which is not a good thing when you also oversee contract procurement for a large metro county.
Investigators were already fishing for corruption in DeKalb when they nailed Walton for lying about getting some freebies (tree work at home from a contractor). From there, it was short work to turn him into an informer.
Maybe while they were at it, they should have invested in lessons for Walton at the Tony Danza Acting School. The tapes show him as a sometimes overly suggestive subordinate, sort of an Igor to Dr. Frankenstein, throwing out possible ways to retaliate against contractors who were unwilling to contribute to Ellis’ re-election campaign.
Ellis’ defense team seized upon that, saying Walton twisted conversations to make Ellis appear conniving.
Nevertheless, it doesn’t look good so far for Ellis. He is either a venal shakedown artist, as prosecutors claim, or a manipulative, hyper-sensitive pol. At best, he comes across like an insecure junior high girl whose Sadie Hawkins date has blown her off.
It was fall 2012, and Ellis was heading to sure re-election. But he owed a couple hundred grand, having overspent two months earlier to beat two marginal opponents in the Democratic primary, the election in DeKalb that counts.
The tapes show a close relationship between the CEO and his procurement director. At one point, Walton, who wears monogrammed shirts with gleaming cuff links, apparently gave the usually impeccably dressed Ellis fashion advice. “You wearing that?” Walton asked Ellis as the latter prepared to attend some event.
If only the informer had been wearing a video camera instead of secretly toting a digital voice recorder. (His recorder pen had unfortunately punked out.)
But then, according to the tape, the pair went back to more pressing business — Ellis’ ire that a Cobb County vendor was not returning his calls soliciting political donations.
“They can’t not be returning calls,” Ellis said to the ever-agreeing Walton.
Walton said he’d tell the county purchasing department to no longer use the company.
“Yeah, just let (the contract) expire,” Ellis said, telling Walton to put a note in the company’s file saying the owners were non-responsive.
The tapes capture Ellis at a time when the mayor-like boss of this county of 700,000 residents was heading to a second four-year term and thinking about his legacy. He wasn’t thinking small, casting himself in the role of a latter-day Maynard Jackson, using county contracts like a rising tide to lift a lot of minority-business boats.
“We have to think about the vision,” the Wharton School grad told Walton, holding up the example of the fabled Atlanta mayor and H.J. Russell, the African American construction firm that long has been an iconic minority business success.
“We can make some millionaires,” Ellis told Walton.
As an example of an opportunity missed, Ellis brought up a minority builder who came in second during a bidding process and could have been drawn into the mix.
“It started me thinking there should be more minorities here,” he said. “Here’s an example of a brother who went before that commission and nobody gave him a second thought.”
“Someone has to grab me,” Walton implored, saying he doesn’t automatically recognize which firms are minority owned.
“I’m about to bring a couple strong brothers in this government,” Ellis said. “ I think the next (chief operating officer) is going to be a brother.” The next county attorney, too, he said would be a “brother.”
Then he quickly added, “I’m looking for the best people.”
Seven months later, the chief operating officer, Ted Rhinehart, who is white, left for private business. He could not be reached to talk about why he left. The current COO is black, as is the current county attorney, who also came six months after Ellis’ statement, although Ellis would consider her a “sister.”
But, according to Walton, Ellis’ desire to enrich minority contractors had very definite limits.
He cited a firm whose owners enraged Ellis by not returning his solicitation calls. “NPI was a minority contractor, and we were about to dry them up,” the snitch testified.
Another witness, Terry Merrell, gave a glimpse of how unsettling the DeKalb Way could be to an outsider not accustomed to it. Merrell, a God-fearing Hoosier, runs a firm that landed a $5 million county contract that included spreading waste-water sludge over fields.
He testified that Ellis asked him for $25,000 in campaign contributions. In the same conversation, Merrell said, Ellis also suggested that he could personally intercede to smooth out some very aggravating problems Merrell’s company was having with a local sub-contractor.
“What he said next just sent shivers through my spine,” Merrell testified. “He said ‘Do you want me to make a phone call?’ and I said, ‘No, I don’t want you to make a phone call.’ I didn’t want any part of that.”
Ellis, whose defense team has yet to present its case, has pleaded not guilty. He has said he did nothing more than all big-time politicians must do: raise money to run for office. He has said no coercion, improper inducements or retaliation were involved.
A jury will soon sort it all out.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the name of the iconic Atlanta construction firm. It is H.J. Russell.