DeKalb Ethics Board shoots down CEO request for legal fund

DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis, under a cloud of suspicion since investigators from the District Attorney’s office searched his home and office in January, recently asked the county’s ethics board if he could set up a legal defense fund.

The unanimous vote in the Feb.19 meeting: No way.

“Under our code, we must always address whether something gives the appearance of impropriety,” said Teri Thompson, the board’s vice chairwoman. “We decided this would definitely have the appearance of impropriety. It is not an appropriate thing to do.”

Ellis did not return a request for comment. He hired a powerful legal team two weeks after the Jan. 7 searches at his home and office as part of a widening political corruption probe.

Former federal prosecutor Craig Gillen leads the team, which includes a former DeKalb DA and two other attorneys. Tuesday, Gillen said he was not familiar with Ellis’ request to set up and solicit money for a defense fund and could not comment.

Ellis’ letter, dated Feb. 4, asks about setting up the fund “by private citizens on behalf of a member of the governing authority of DeKalb County.”

The money raised would be in an account to be used only for legal defense. Among restrictions proposed were not allowing county employees to donate and requiring the account custodian to try to keep contributors’ identities unknown to Ellis.

Contributions to Ellis’ political run are the subject of some of the documents that agents from District Attorney Robert James’ office sought at the homes and office of Ellis and his former campaign manager, attorney Kevin Ross.

About 40 percent of the campaign cash Ellis collected to run for DeKalb’s top job have come from firms that either work or want to work for the county, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation.

In looking for evidence of bid rigging, bribery and other crimes, agents also searched for county contracts, specifically with firms Ross represented after Ellis was elected.

Ellis and Ross have not been charged with a crime. Both deny wrongdoing.

But both have racked up legal bills with at least three hearings seeking access to the sealed final report prepared by the special grand jury conducting the investigation.

That report remains under seal while an appeals court reviews whether Ellis and Ross can read it before it becomes public. They want to determine if the special grand jury exceeded its authority, according to court filings.

Ellis has continued to run the day-to-day operations of Georgia’s third-largest county as the legal battles play out.

A written report on the ethics board’s discussion and vote has yet to be filed in the county.

“We didn’t see any way he can possibly (set up a fund) while continuing to serve in his role,” said ethics board member Isaac Blythers. “This looks like it falls in the category of influencing political action. No one wants that.”

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.