A corruption investigation that first focused on DeKalb County’s Department of Watershed Management took an unexpected turn Monday, when investigators searched the home of county CEO Burrell Ellis seeking information about campaign contributions he received from vendors.
District Attorney Robert James asked authorities to search Ellis’ home and office Monday morning, when he knew the CEO would be unavailable.
The seven warrants seek specific contracts, travel expenses and campaign contributions for Ellis, who was testifying in front of a special grand jury during the searches. James convened the body last January to look at allegations of claims of bid rigging and kickbacks in county contracts.
“I don’t know that I am a target,” Ellis told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in an exclusive interview Monday afternoon. “I can’t imagine what they’re looking for. We have not done anything remotely wrong.”
James declined to comment Monday. But last year he said he wanted to examine the county’s bidding process to look at those who “may have had their hand in the cookie jar” to determine whether there was a problem and how deep it could be.
The searches were the latest incident raising questions about public corruption in DeKalb, though the first for county government leaders.
In April, former DeKalb School Superintendent Crawford Lewis, his one-time chief operating officer, Patricia Reid, and her former husband, Anthony Pope, head to trial on racketeering charges. All three are charged with stealing from taxpayers.
During Monday’s searches, the DA’s investigators seized boxes of material and computers from Ellis’ office and home and also searched the county’s purchasing, information technology and finances offices, warrants show.
Among specific purchasing documents sought: those affiliated with Kevin Ross, an attorney who managed Ellis’ transition team and campaign when he first ran for office four years ago. Attempts to reach Ross for comment Monday evening were unsuccessful.
As the county CEO for DeKalb, the only municipality in the state operating under such a system, Ellis serves as the top administrator and has the power to cancel county contracts.
In 2010, Ellis terminated three contracts, two involving Ross. One was with the county’s probation company, a competitor to the probation company that Ross works for.
Ellis later rescinded that move after critics said only judges had that power. But Ellis also stressed that his relationship with Ross did not influence his decision.
Monday, Ellis said he has had contact with some county vendors, as he does with others in the government realm. But he was emphatic that he has never made promises to vendors or any others about what his administration would or would not do.
“I ensure a fair government, and I don’t promise any vendor, anyone, anything in return,” Ellis said. “I have never promised anyone anything for a campaign contribution.”
Ellis was aggressive in raising funds for his re-election campaign last year. He raised $332,830 last year for his re-election bid, according to campaign reports filed with the state.
By comparison, candidates Jerome Edmondson and Gregory Adams raised $165,656 and $3,335, respectively.
The fundraising helped publicize his campaign pledges, that he would work to maintain county services during ongoing tough economic times. Voters supported that mission, re-electing Ellis to office in November with 60 percent of the vote.
When James first convened the special grand jury, its mission was to look at the relationship between vendors and the Watershed Management Department, which sells water and sewer services to the county’s residents.
The grand jury must compile a final report on its findings, which can then be used for regular grand juries to weigh criminal charges.
By law, the sessions are conducted in secret. But several top county leaders besides Ellis had acknowledged that they appeared before the grand jury, including Chief Operating Officer Richard Stogner and Ted Rhinehart, a deputy operating officer who oversees the Public Works and Watershed Management departments. Former CEO Vernon Jones fought his subpoena, demanding assurance that he was not the target of the investigation.
Those who admitted appearing before the grand jury said they had been asked about county contracting procedures.
When authorities arrived Monday at Ellis’ home in Stone Mountain, the only person there was his 83-year-old mother, who came to visit to see him sworn into office.
Ellis called his mother as soon as he learned about the search and said he was more shaken up to hear her in tears and needing to be cared for by neighbors than he was by the events of the day.
“I have nothing to hide,” Ellis said. “They can look through everything they took, and I will gladly provide any more they request. I trust the process will lead to the truth, and when this is over, any perception of impropriety will be removed.”
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