DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis was having a hard time closing the deal.
On the telephone with a new county government vendor, Ellis bemoaned the high cost of his recent re-election campaign. A fundraising event was coming up, and Ellis suggested the vendor contribute at the “maximum level”: $2,500.
But the vendor balked. As a Cobb County resident who knew little about Ellis’ politics, why would he “support” DeKalb County?
In a sterner tone, Ellis reminded the man that his new contract was with DeKalb. “If I got to sit and explain to you why you would want to support this county government – ”
To members of a special grand jury, who listened to a recording of the phone call, the meaning of Ellis’ unfinished remark was clear: The way to do business with county government was to donate to the man who ran county government.
The call and several others of a similar nature are detailed in a report by the grand jury, impaneled to investigate DeKalb County contracting practices. The jury completed work in January, but its report became public only this week, as Ellis prepares to stand trial on corruption charges.
The report offers significant new details about Ellis’ alleged misdeeds, and indicates that at least some of them were secretly recorded.
Acting “under the color of his title as CEO,” the grand jury said, Ellis pressured county vendors, especially those with newly awarded contracts, to contribute to his campaign fund. Those who declined, the grand jury said, faced a loss of county business “for punitive and political reasons.”
Ellis, who was suspended from office last month after his indictment, has not spoken publicly about the case. On Thursday, his representatives criticized the grand jury’s report – its findings, its recommendations, even its provenance.
“There’s a lot more to be told,” said Jeff Dickerson, a spokesman for Ellis’ defense team. “Nowhere will we find that there was a threat to any firm, any business, that they would lose county business if they did not give a contribution. There was no correlation between whether you gave and whether you won a county contract.”
Craig Gillen, Ellis’ lead attorney, said the report proves that the grand jury exceeded its authority. In court filings, he has said the jury’s original charge allowed it to investigate only contracting in DeKalb’s Department of Watershed Management from 2002 to 2010.