CEO’s adviser avoids testifying in DeKalb corruption probe

About the DeKalb corruption probe

A special grand jury was convened under DeKalb District Attorney Robert James early last year to investigate allegations of corruption involving contracts in DeKalb County’s water and sewer department. By law, special grand jury deliberations are conducted in secret. But clues have emerged about what its focus might be in search warrants the district attorney has executed and witnesses that have been called. Here are the key developments so far:

  • DeKalb investigators searched the home and office of DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis seeking, according to warrants, evidence of racketeering, bribery, theft, bid rigging and fraud. Ellis has denied any wrongdoing.
  • DeKalb investigators searched the home and office of Atlanta attorney and political consultant Kevin Ross, Ellis' former campaign manager and the counsel to several vendors whose contracts with the county were specifically listed in the search warrants. Ross has denied any wrongdoing.
  • When the grand jury probe began, it focused on contracting within DeKalb County's water department. But search warrants executed last week suggest the probe has widened, as those warrants sought documents related to vendors who did lobbying work and provided law enforcement probation and ambulance services.

The former campaign manager of DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis is a target of a widening corruption probe, a Superior Court judge ruled Monday in agreeing that attorney Kevin Ross can’t be forced to testify in the investigation.

Judge Mark Anthony Scott’s ruling released Ross from appearing before the special grand jury investigating allegations of kickbacks on contracts in the county’s water and sewer department. It also laid clear that the investigation is focused additionally on campaign contributions made to Ellis and county contracts, including to firms Ross went on to represent after Ellis’ election to the county’s top post in 2008.

That’s because state law does not allow the target of an investigation to appear before a grand jury, lest it give too much power to a prosecutor to ask questions without an opposing attorney present, according to the motion obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“Forcing him to appear … would only serve to embarrass and humiliate him,” wrote Ross’ attorney, Seth Kirschenbaum, a former federal prosecutor and one-time attorney for Andrea Sneiderman, the Dunwoody widow facing charges in the death of her husband, Rusty.

Ellis, the county’s top elected official who runs the county government’s daily operations, wasn’t able to avoid that fate. He was testifying before the grand jury last week when investigators from District Attorney Robert James’ office seized possible evidence indicating political corruption from his home and office and those of Ross.

A spokesman said Monday that Ellis has not hired an attorney to represent his interests in the investigation.

Both Ellis and Ross deny wrongdoing. In 2010, though, the AJC reported that Ross acknowledged that shortly after Ellis took office in 2009, he urged the CEO to cancel and rebid contracts held by competitors of a firm he represented.

In one instance, for ambulance service, the company Ross represented got the contract. Ellis later rescinded his cancellation of the deal for probation services, but said Ross did not influence any of his decisions.

The search warrants executed last week detail those contracts and a handful of others with companies that Ross represents, seeking evidence of racketeering, bid rigging and other possible crimes.

Erik Burton, a spokesman for the DA’s office, did not return calls seeking comment. By law, the special grand jury meets in secret to review evidence.

Its findings must be compiled in a final report, which the district attorney can then present to a regular grand jury to decide if anyone should be charged with a crime.