DeKalb County's chief executive officer, Burrell Ellis, was indicted Tuesday by a grand jury on 15 counts that included extortion and theft by taking.
DeKalb District Attorney Robert James outlined the charges at an afternoon press conference. The charges allege that Ellis demanded campaign contributions as a price of county contracts. Three companies were named, as was Kelvin Walton, a county employee who is described as an unindicted co-conspirator.
The charges against the DeKalb County CEO include four counts of criminal attempt to commit theft by extortion, two counts of conspiracy in restraint of free and open competition, two counts of criminal attempt to commit false statements and wiring, three counts of theft by taking, one count of conspiracy to defraud a political subdivision and three counts of coercion of other employee to give anything of value for political purposes.
Ellis, a former county commissioner, was elected in 2008 and re-elected in 2012. The indictments cover the timeline of his re-election campaign.
Ellis was processed and posted a $25,000 bond Tuesday night. He walked out of DeKalb County Jail shortly after 8 p.m.
Stay in touch with The Crier for updates and analysis of the 15 charges.
The indictment and arrest of DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis on June 18 involved alleged use of county contracts and employees to obtain campaign contributions from three companies for his re-election in 2012. They have also spurred speculation on who will head the county government for the remainder of his four-year term.
“After the governor receives the indictment, the law calls for the governor to wait two weeks and then convene a review commission,” Brian Robinson, a spokesman for Gov. Nathan Deal said. “The members are the attorney general and two peer officials from other Georgia counties.”
“The panel could recommend suspension but it could also rule that he should stay in office,” Robinson said. “If it determines he should continue in office, then that decision would be final. If it determines that he should be suspended, then the governor makes the final decision.”
DeKalb’s Organizational Act, which describes the duties of the commissioners and chief executive officer (CEO), does not specify who would run the county if the CEO is suspended pending the outcome of his criminal case.
The Organizational Act says if a vacancy occurs in the office of the CEO and at least 180 days remain in his unexpired term, the DeKalb election superintendent will issue a call for a special election within 15 days after the vacancy occurs to fill the unexpired term. That special election would have to be held 29 to 45 days after the call is issued.
The vacancy could occur “by reason of death, resignation, removal from the county or from the district from which elected or for any other reason.”
With a short time to campaign and the possibility of the CEO being acquitted and demanding his office back, it is unclear how many candidates would run for his unexpired term.
If the CEO’s office is vacant, the act says the presiding officer of the commission would exercise the powers and duties of the CEO from the date the vacancy occurs until the successor CEO takes office following the special election. If less than six months is left in the CEO’s term, the presiding officer would stand in for the CEO for the remainder of the term.
However, the presiding officer could not fire the executive assistant and could not vote as a member of the commission while filling the vacancy. He might be able to vote in case of a tie in the commission just as the CEO can.
The deputy presiding officer, who is currently Sharon Barnes Sutton, would run the commission meetings and perform the duties of the presiding officer during his absence or until the commission elected a successor presiding officer at their first regular January meeting.
Whether the CEO remains in office or not for the rest of his term, Executive Assistant Zachary Williams, the former county manager for Fulton County, would continue to act as the county’s chief operating officer with supervision over all the departments. Several commissioners have said they wanted a county manager form of government without a CEO.
“This is a sad day for DeKalb County. While every person is clearly innocent until proven guilty, this ongoing saga has been has been a distraction and continues to bring unwelcome negative publicity to our county and government,” Commissioner Lee May, who became the presiding officer this year, said Tuesday night. “Like all citizens of DeKalb, I pray there will be a quick resolution to these issues.”
Ellis and Purchasing Director Kelvin Walton, who was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the indictment, were both on the job on Thursday, according to county communications office.
Five of the 15 counts in the indictment contain allegations involved Power and Energy Services, Inc. around June 25, 2012 and around September 27, 2012. The indictment said Ellis threatened to end that company’s business with DeKalb after officers of that company did not respond to his campaign contribution solicitations and a company employee indicated the company would not contribute.
According to the indictment, Ellis told Walton to prevent Power and Energy from obtaining any additional work from DeKalb under a purchase agreement for diesel engines, generators and accessory equipment services because the company did not contribute to his campaign. Around September 28, 2012, Ellis allegedly instructed Walton to put a false note in the Power and Energy file that said the company did not return phone calls.
According to commission records, on April 10, 2012, the commissioners approved a contract with Power and Energy for $250,000 for monthly and annual inspections, maintenance, repairs and services for diesel engines and generators for Watershed Management and Facilities Management departments. The amount of the contract, which expires Aug. 31, was increased by $95,000 on May 28.
Another five counts deal with lists of vendors that had received contracts with the county. The indictment claims Ellis ordered Walton to create lists of vendors so Ellis could use them to solicit campaign contributions from the vendors. Walton had three contract assistants allegedly use commission agendas and purchasing data to prepare the lists that contained contact information and contract amounts during their normal working hours and while they were being paid by the county between November 1, 2011 and November 30, 2012.
Ellis also allegedly ordered Walton during Walton’s normal working hours to deliver the vendor lists to Ellis at the offices of R.L. Brown Associates, Inc., where Ellis was making campaign solicitation telephone calls.
(Robert L. Brown, president of R. L. Brown & Associates, was one of four co-chairpersons of the Ellis Transition Committee in 2008. Brown was not mentioned in the indictment.)
In two counts, the indictment alleges that between Feb. 17 and March 21, 2012, Ellis threatened to prevent CIBER, Inc from getting business from DeKalb County after CIBER employee Joanne Wise “indicated she and CIBER, Inc. would not contribute to his campaign.” It claims Ellis threatened to tell the CEO of CIBER that the company would not receive any additional work from DeKalb due to poor customer service from Wise.
According to commission records, CIBER, Inc. was one of five bidders awarded an information systems professional services contract in March 2008 for a combined amount not to exceed $3.6 million. In July 2010, the combined cap amount was raised to $7.2 million. However, the commissioners voted in May 2011 to deny a two-year extension for all of these consultant agreements.
The last three counts involve National Property Institute (NPI), which purchases foreclosed homes to rehabilitate and resells them.
The indictment claimed Ellis conspired with Walton to prevent NPI from receiving work from the county around October 1, 2012 because NPI did not contribute to his campaign.
Between Sept. 28 and Oct. 1, Ellis allegedly ordered Chris Morris, director of DeKalb Community Development Department, to arrange a meeting between Ellis and NPI and to attend a meeting with NPI during working hours that was held because Ellis said NPI had not responded to his telephone campaign solicitations.
According to commission records, National Property Institute was awarded a contract for up to $1 million in April 2012 to help the Community Development Department implement the Neighborhood Stabilization Program in the Hidden Hills Community.
DeKalb District Attorney Robert James announced the 15-county indictment at a press conference Tuesday. Shortly before, Judge Daniel Coursey set bail for Ellis at $25,000. Ellis turned himself in a couple hours later and returned home that night. The arraignment was expected in about 30 days.