If secret recordings of Burrell Ellis seem to reveal a man who could appear haughty and viewed himself as the sole voice of DeKalb County, his lawyers say that could actually be a strong argument in his defense.
What the tapes reveal is Ellis’ temperament, his lawyers say, and they say the tapes of Ellis railing against vendors who didn’t give him campaign cash don’t tell the whole story. Their motions claim nuance is missing in the summaries District Attorney Robert James used to get search warrants of Ellis’ home and office in 2013.
“CEO Ellis’ concern was not about a contribution but a lack of respect for the office by not returning calls,” attorney Dwight Thomas wrote.
Their arguments against allowing the recordings in evidence in the suspended CEO’s trial were unsealed this week. Hundreds of hours of wiretaps and recordings are expected to bolster prosecutors’ charges that Ellis pressured firms doing business with the county to donate to his campaign and threatened or punished those who did not.
Ellis’ lawyers say he wasn’t punishing people or canceling contracts based on who did not donate. Rather, they say, Ellis was offended on behalf of the county when the vendors didn’t return his calls, and not just miffed for himself.
“If you don’t respond to the CEO, you’re not responding to the county,” Ellis said in an October 2012 meeting complaining about one vendor who did not take his repeated calls.
Some legal watchers said Ellis’ mindset of conflating himself with the county could provide a strong alternative view of the motive for his behavior.
But to other legal and political experts, a problem remains for his defense team: Ellis called that vendor and others from a nongovernmental office and gave his private cellphone number for return calls.
They suggested Ellis’ fusing of his personal role and the county’s needs is what led James to pursue 14 felony charges, including bid-rigging, extortion and theft.
“It’s like this is his fiefdom and you are not responding to the king,” said Jill Polster, an Atlanta defense attorney and former DeKalb prosecutor. “It’s a bit much for county politics, frankly, especially when he certainly appears to be working on campaign stuff, not county business.”
But Steve Sadow, an Atlanta criminal defense attorney, said it may seem reasonable that Ellis felt entitled to a certain amount of deference in his role. Ellis’ rants make sense in that context — and are also not illegal, Sadow said.
“It’s almost personality defect as a defense,” Sadow said. “That may sit poorly with some, but it will resonate with others.”
So far, only partial transcripts of meetings and calls have been revealed in the court motions. A series of recordings between September and October 2012 show Ellis’ growing anger at an official at National Property Institute who had not answered seven separate calls.
Kelvin Walton, the county’s purchasing director who cooperated with prosecutors in the case, recorded the sessions.
“We ain’t doing any more business with her,” Ellis is quoted as saying in 2012 about the owner of the Ellenwood real estate firm. “A million-dollar contract and she hung up on me and won’t return my phone calls?”
After a meeting with Trina Shealey in October 2012, Ellis complains to staffers that he had tried to reach her “over and over” for a campaign contribution since June. He appears to want to cancel her $1 million contract, comparing her lack of response to him with not responding to the county itself, according to documents.
Community Development Director Chris Morris cautions Ellis about terminating the contract right after Shealey refused to give. But once she leaves the meeting, Ellis orders the purchasing director to “just dry them up” on the contract.
That back-and-forth does not include key information, however: Shealey and her husband eventually did give Ellis’ campaign the $2,500 maximum contribution, and the firm’s contract was not canceled or altered.
A grand jury investigating allegations of corruption concluded Shealey donated because she and her husband feared the contract would be terminated if they did not.
Without context and the full recordings, it is impossible to know definitively which side’s story makes the most sense, said Steve Anthony, a political science lecturer at Georgia State University.
“If it unfolded exactly as described, if all of those quotes are true, then yes he conducted himself inappropriately and crossed the line,” Anthony said. “But both sides are quoting only what they want to quote out of the tapes. It will be easy to prove, or disprove, once we hear the entire tapes.”
It isn’t unusual that James’ office would pick “good facts” from the tapes to support the request for search warrants, said Marietta defense attorney Ashleigh Merchant.
It is more concerning, Merchant said, that the DA investigator did not reveal that the office knew Walton had failed multiple polygraph tests during the investigation, when he was asked about taking bribes from at least two vendors. Walton then became the cooperating witness who covertly recorded Ellis and his staff.
“The officer knew that (he was lying) and essentially told the court that the confidential information was reliable,” Merchant said. “This was not true.”
Attorneys said attacks from both sides are likely to get even stronger as the case goes on.
“It would be better for the county, for the citizens, to work this out before trial because it’s so ugly,” Polster said. “But I don’t see that happening. It’s just going to get uglier.”
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