As Burrell Ellis faced a DeKalb County judge Wednesday, his freedom at stake, I thought back to an evening three years ago when he embodied an American success story.
It was March 2012 and my youngest son’s Boy Scout troop was on flag duty at Avondale Estates city hall for the mayor’s annual state of the city address. A few local luminaries attended, like a neighboring mayor, DeKalb’s school superintendent (the one who barely lasted a year) and CEO Burrell Ellis, who walked in fashionably late to a round of appreciative applause.
I met Ellis in the late 1990s when writing about a nasty little controversy in Avondale when the city manager made racial slurs and, according to two former cops, joked that police shoulder patches should have an image of a black man “with a noose around his neck.”
My story explored the city’s history of racial profiling and the practice of homeowners calling police to complain about “nonresidents” at the city’s private lake. Routine practice was for cops to show up and look for the black guy.
In the mid-1990s, Ellis, a lawyer who had lived in an Avondale condo for several years, was picnicking at the lake with his wife when a cop showed up and asked to see his ID. Another time an officer U-turned to follow him.
I told my son that story and noted how things had changed. Years earlier, he was a suspicious black guy at the lake getting rousted by cops. Now, he was an esteemed public official, the leader of a metro county with Avondale’s mayor gushing over him.
Afterward, I introduced my son to Ellis and the CEO’s eyes lit up when he saw the uniform. Ellis, a lifetime overachiever, said he always regretted not sticking with the Scouts to achieve Eagle Scout.
Ellis, who seemed like a grown Boy Scout, appeared interested that my son was aiming at that rank and vowed to attend my son’s Eagle Scout ceremony one day, a prospect that excited a 12-year-old.
When elected CEO in 2008, Ellis, a trim, wonky Ivy Leaguer, seemed to be the antidote to the divisive politics of his predecessor Vernon Jones.
Incidentally, Jones attended Ellis’s court hearing Wednesday and, for several seconds, used his elongated middle finger to express his affection for me when I gazed his way.
Ellis and the commission were left with tough choices as the economy crashed, the tax digest plummeted and northern regions of DeKalb worked to incorporate to lessen county government’s impact on their lives.
Walton wears a wire
When I saw him in Avondale in 2012, Ellis was in re-election campaign mode, wanting to raise $1 million to pummel prospective opponents and ensure an easy return to office. He was doing well. That week alone, he raised $24,000, including the $2,500 maximum from Coca Cola.
To help the effort, he employed a time-honored method favored by incumbents: calling county vendors to hit them up for campaign cash. There’s nothing wrong with this. Actually, there’s plenty wrong with it: at the very least it makes government look like a pay-to-play endeavor. But it is not illegal and is commonplace.
At that same time, a special purpose grand jury was two months into its investigation of skulduggery connected with contracts in the watershed department. The investigation originally was to look at the years 2002-2010, but grand juries sometimes expand and meander into other matters. This one did.
Somewhere along the line, the investigation ensnared the county’s ethically challenged contract procurement director, Kelvin Walton, who was caught telling a fib, which in grand jury parlance is perjury, a felony charge that nudges truth-averse folks into enthusiastic community service.
The watershed investigation then pivoted to a wide-ranging look at the county, one that zeroed in on the CEO. Walton became Ellis’ toady, volunteering for his campaign and wearing a wire. There are some 1,500 recordings of Ellis (the lion’s share made by Walton), tapes that show Ellis as a thin-skinned pol who nursed slights and who did not like contractors evading him when he went about the ugly business of raising campaign funds.
Walton was always there to lend a sympathetic ear, sharing his boss’s anger with recalcitrant contractors and even suggesting illegal tactics for his boss to use to punish those not playing along.
If you don't speak, you can't lie
Whether Ellis was predisposed to crossing the line is known only to him. He still contends he didn’t. But a jury found him guilty of attempted theft by extortion and three counts of perjury. It is clear to me — I sat through several days of both trials — that he wasn’t truthful to the grand jury when asked about contractors. District Attorney Robert James laid a trap for Ellis on the perjury counts and the Ivy Leaguer fell into it.
His legal team said he was tricked into telling what appear to be lies by prosecutors’ wily questions, which were open-ended, out of context and nonspecific.
Regardless, a videotape of Ellis’ January 2013 testimony shows the gravity of the situation sinking in on him when he mulls over a question and he realizes that he might be the prey.
Vernon Jones was chided by the grand jury in its report for refusing to answer many questions and invoking the Fifth. But he’s no dummy. He knows if you don’t answer questions, there is no perjury.
Ellis was sentenced to 18 months in prison. Some complained that was too light, but that depends on who has to do the time. It’s always easier to push for a harsh sentence when someone else will be serving it.
In recent months while out on bond, Ellis was spotted in full Cub Scout leader regalia at a cemetery decorating veterans’ graves.
In the courthouse hall during the most recent trial, he said he still wants to attend the Eagle Scout ceremony. He said such a ceremony would be an inspiration to his own young son, who shares his name.
My youngest would be on target for getting Eagle sometime next year. Ellis should be out by then.