Questioning county’s ethics, effectiveness

It surfaced more than three years ago with a grease inspector taking bribes for restaurant permits.

But the story of corruption in DeKalb County didn’t crystallize for many of us until October 1. On that day the county’s suspended CEO — the man twice elected to run the state’s fourth-largest county — was sworn in to testify in his defense.

Burrell Ellis raised his right hand, swore to tell the truth and started what turned out to be three days of testimony to explain away 13 criminal charges. Ellis is accused of using his authority to strongarm contractors into donating tens of thousands of dollars to his re-election campaign. An all-female jury would eventually deadlock.

How did we get here? This was all driven by a steady stream of questions posed to DeKalb leaders by DeKalb citizens, the county’s district attorney and the news media, including The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In our system of government, it’s our best tool in maintaining a check on power. In my 20 years of journalism, I’ve found this to be true: Ask enough questions and potentially unethical or corrupt behavior will eventually come to light. That’s how what started with a low-level employee shaking down restaurants ended with DeKalb’s most powerful local politician standing criminally accused.

  • After former DeKalb watershed department grease inspector Dameco Moss admitted his payoff scheme back in 2011, DeKalb County District Attorney Robert James asked whether other watershed employees were on the take.
  • That eventually led to a special purpose grand jury empaneled to investigate how the watershed does business. After some digging, it began asking questions beyond the water department. If a culture of corruption exists there, what about the rest of DeKalb government?
  • The grand jury spent a year examining documents and hearing testimony from 89 witnesses, including Ellis, before concluding in August 2013 that a culture of corruption exists in county government that spans a decade and two county administrations. Grand jurors cited Ellis’ relationship with contractors as a problem.
  • After the grand jury report was released, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution began to question whether the contracts awarded in DeKalb’s most expensive infrastructure project to date, its $1.35 billion sewer upgrade, were going to the companies best qualified to do the work. We found that the first major contract awarded went to a questionably qualified contractor who had performed shoddy work. The work was so bad that the upgrade of the Snapfinger Creek Advanced Wastewater Treatment Facility was halted, based in part on the AJC’s reporting. Tucker-based Desmear Systems, an Ellis campaign contributor, was fired last year.

The AJC is committed to continuing to ask questions about the effectiveness and ethics of DeKalb government. The Ellis trial, which the AJC covered from start to finish with a team of reporters, led by DeKalb watchdog reporter Mark Niesse and veteran courts and public safety reporter Rhonda Cook, has offered yet another rare glimpse into the inner workings of DeKalb County government.

Our commitment to bringing the trial to readers across our print and digital products included:

  • A web page on myajc.com dedicated to the trial. It featured timelines, videos and interactive elements that would catch readers up on each of the main characters essential to the trial.
  • Real-time, minute-by-minute updates on ajc.com.
  • More updates via social media, driven by our DeKalb Facebook and Twitter accounts.
  • Robust daily conversations about the trial among readers in our comments sections on ajc.com and myajc.com.
  • A collection of photos provided each day by our visual staff that captured the courtroom drama, most notably the showdown between Ellis, who testified, and DeKalb DA James, who cross-examined Ellis.
  • Trial analysis gleaned from sitting in on the trial over 45 days of jury selection, testimony and jury deliberation.

Judging by your feedback, our trial coverage is arming readers with more questions about how government should police itself and whether there should be more limits on who politicians can solicit for campaign contributions. Others of you are interested in whether there will prosecutions beyond Ellis, a question only James can answer.

A more immediate decision the DA must make is whether to retry Ellis.

If he does, we will likely get a repeat of how the first trial unfolded. The AJC will cover it with the same urgency. And we will likely see the same drama.

One of those dramatic moments was captured by AJC photographer Brant Sanderlin. It’s the photo of Ellis being sworn in as a criminal defendant before he took the witness stand. Of metro Atlanta’s leaders, the Ivy League-educated, mild-mannered Ellis seemed the least likely to wind up fighting his way out of a possible prison sentence.

It’s all the more reason we will keep asking questions. Lots of them. Of everyone.

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