DeKalb political donations under scrutiny

Nearly 40 percent — almost $600,000 — of the campaign cash Burrell Ellis has collected to run for DeKalb County CEO has come from firms that either work or want to work for the county, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation has found.

Accepting campaign donations from vendors is not illegal. And it’s not unusual for those who have an interest in doing business with a county to give generously to top politicians.

But a special grand jury, investigating possible corruption in county water/sewer department contracts, put the spotlight on Ellis’ relationship with vendors after DeKalb District Attorney’s office investigators searched Ellis’ home and office Jan. 7.

Search warrants show agents were looking for evidence of bid rigging, bribery and other political corruption crimes.

Political observers say most elections — from local to federal — run on the cash from well-connected companies and people. That money is critical to the candidates’ ability to get their messages out to people who can put them into office.

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Ellis took in $596,364 from vendors and bidders between 2007 and 2012, according to records analyzed by a team from the AJC and Channel 2 Action News. In that time, he built a nearly $1.5 million war chest, despite conventional wisdom that he would win reelection.

In some cases, donations were given to Ellis about the same time companies were awarded contracts, including to those to firms represented by Ellis’ former campaign manager, Kevin Ross, after he was first elected CEO in 2008.

Investigators also searched Ross’ home and office on Jan. 7. He and Ellis have not been charged with a crime and both deny any wrongdoing.

The AJC found that the majority of firms that gave to Ellis’ campaign went on to win projects.

Among them: one of Ross’ clients, MWH Americas, won a contract worth $665,494 in 2010 and 2011 to develop a computer-based hydraulic model for the county’s failing sewer system. MWH, also known as Montgomery Watson, gave $5,300 in three donations between 2008 and 2011.

The planning and design firm AECOM, which gave Ellis $3,850 in that same period, won a $4.6 million contract last spring for a water pumping station.

Both the CEO and county commission had to sign off on the deals. The county’s charter requires the county commission to approve all contracts over $100,000, except for contracts of employment. The CEO can approve up to $50,000 in work without formal bids.

Craig Gillen, a former federal prosecutor Ellis hired to guide his response to District Attorney Robert James’ probe, said Ellis had no comment on the donations.

Speaking the day of the raid, though, Ellis said he usually refuses to meet with donors he knew were soliciting a county contract.

“When people contribute to my campaign, they want good government,” Ellis said. “I don’t promise any vendor anything in return.”

It would be a crime for a public official to accept cash — campaign or otherwise — in return for favors. Such a case was settled last year when Gwinnett County Commissioner Shirley Lasseter resigned and pleaded guilty to taking a $36,000 bribe for her support of a proposed development. She was sentenced to 33 months in prison.

The perception that contractors can wield or buy influence hurts the already shaky trust most metro Atlantans have in government, said William Perry, executive director of Common Cause Georgia.

“It immediately casts doubt as to whether or not the best vendor was selected,” Perry said. “It hurts the citizens because those who are being chosen are not necessarily the ones providing the best service but are influencing the process the best.”

But there are plenty of examples, too, of vendors winning contracts with DeKalb without donating to Ellis or any other political leaders. Records show some vendors win big contracts without making contributions to Ellis or any other political leaders.

Steele and Associates, for example, beat out two firms that have given to Ellis to win $1 million contract to install water meters for the county in 2009.

A representative from the utility contractor said Ellis never approached the company to give to his campaign. But the firm has a strict policy to not make any political donations, despite doing mostly government work across the state.

“It would be considered a conflict of interest,” said Al Fox, a project manager at the company. “We prefer to do it straightforward and compete on our bids straight up.”

How vendor contracts link with Ellis’ campaign contributions is expected to be included in a report from the special grand jury James convened last year, to examine allegation of corruption in contracts with the county’s Watershed Management office.

That report has not yet been released.

But as it develops, some residents believe DeKalb needs to consider looking at new rules to scrub its reputation.

Already damaged by threats that the county school system could lose its accreditation, the cloud of suspicion in county government must be addressed, said Nick Guerreo, a real estate worked from Chamblee.

“Whether it’s really happening or not, the perception is there,” he said. “I think this is the beginning of a long road, unfortunately. We have got a lot to get cleared up.”

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