Grand jury foreman sues to have report made public

The foreman of the special grand jury investigating possible corruption in DeKalb County contracts has sued the judge overseeing the grand jury, hoping to force him to make its report public.

The petition filed Wednesday asks that Judge Mark Anthony Scott turn over the jury’s 81-page report to DeKalb’s Superior Court judges for review, as the foreman contends the law required when the jury’s yearlong term ended in January.

It is unclear if such an argument had been tried before with special grand juries.

The law governing those bodies says that if the full bench does not have questions, the report is made public. Scott held off on passing the report along and dismissing the 23 jurors last month, when he ruled that attorneys for DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis and his former campaign manager, attorney Kevin Ross, could review the document before it became public.

“If a grand jury report is going to first be passed along to interested parties and they can change it, why have a special-purpose grand jury?” asked Albert Trujillo, the jury’s foreman, who said members were frustrated by delays.

“We did what we were supposed to do, what by law we were supposed to do, and now it’s being held up,” added Trujillo, a retired IT consultant who now works at Home Depot. “All we want is to follow the law and go on with our lives.”

The holding pattern stems from requests by Ellis and Ross to see if they are named in the report. Their attorneys argue they should be able to propose redactions if the report includes extraneous and embarrassing information about the two men. They also contend that search warrants served at their homes and office indicate the grand jury went beyond its original scope.

In January, agents from District Attorney Robert James’ office searched Ellis’ and Ross’ homes and offices, seizing documents and computer equipment while looking for evidence of political corruption.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation showed that nearly $20,000 of contributions to Ellis came from, and more than $4 million in government contracts were awarded to, businesses named in the search warrants. After reviewing nearly $1.5 million in campaign contributions to Ellis between 2007 and 2012, the AJC also found almost $600,000 – or 40 percent – of his donations came from firms that have or want contracts with the county.

When he initially granted Ellis and Ross 10 days to view the report, Scott said he had not known the DA’s office had begun a separate criminal investigation while the special grand jury’s work, a civil procedure, was going on. He also expressed concern about prosecutors having Ellis testify before the grand jury without a lawyer.

Trujillo’s court filing said the panel that James convened last year to investigate allegations of kickbacks in bid-rigging in water/sewer contracts was permitted to look at other county departments.

Members did expand beyond the first department during their yearlong tenure. They met for at least one day a week, and often several times a week, for their investigation.

During their last three weeks of work, jurors met every day to make sure they could write and unanimously agree on their report. They also unanimously agreed to file the petition Wednesday.

“These people represent a cross-section of the county, all races, all ages, all parts of the county,” Trujillo said. “Every one of us has felt we represent the people of the county. We have taken that duty seriously.”

James is representing the jurors as part of his role in convening them. He also is appealing Scott’s decision to give Ellis and Ross advance review of their report. That case is now before the Georgia Court of Appeals.

James filed Trujillo’s petition Wednesday, as well as a request for an injunction to keep Scott from giving Ellis and Ross’ lawyers access to the report. That could keep the report sealed if the appeals court agrees with Ellis and Ross and dismisses James’ appeal.

A spokesman for his office said James had no comment beyond the filings.

Superior Court Judge Daniel Coursey has been assigned the two latest petitions. He had not reviewed those petitions Thursday, when he was on the bench with a full criminal caseload.

The petitions are the latest legal fireworks surrounding the special grand jury.

In the battle over the grand jury report, Ellis and Ross' legal team and the district attorney's office have both alleged misconduct and asked for the other side to be held in contempt.

Tuesday, the DA’s office amended its contempt motion to explicitly accuse J. Tom Morgan, a former DA now representing Ellis, of intentionally misrepresenting facts.

Morgan said that when he was the district attorney, the Superior Court ordered him to give then-CEO Vernon Jones a preview of a criminal grand jury’s report. The judge then agreed to redact sections before making it public.

But the DA’s office said Morgan failed to mention that he had agreed to give Jones the report before the court took action, making it a voluntary agreement that doesn’t apply in this case.

The DA’s motion says Ellis’ and Ross’ lawyers are mischaracterizing that history “to frustrate the truth, because their clients are powerful men who are ‘bleeding.’ ”

Morgan said he allowed Jones early access to the report because the law allows for that disclosure.

“We agreed to it because it was the law then, and it’s the law now,” Morgan said.

That back-and-forth remains with the appeals court. However, the appellate court is expected to first rule on the motion to dismiss the district attorney’s appeal entirely.

If that happens, the injunction petition could keep the report under seal while the matter makes its way to the state Supreme Court.