Ten days after his home and county offices were searched by investigators from the county DA’s office, DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis has retained a defense team.
Ellis will be represented by former DeKalb DA J. Tom Morgan and Craig Gillen, a defense attorney who specializes in trials involving racketeering and financial crimes. Gillen’s partner, Anthony Lake, and former assistant DeKalb DA John Peachtree, round out Ellis’ legal team.
“I want to say emphatically that I have done nothing wrong and we are proud of the work we’ve done for the citizens of DeKalb County,” said Ellis, who was joined by his wife Philippa.
“Since this investigation began about a year ago, I have cooperated 100 percent in good faith with the District Attorney’s Office,” Ellis said.
A special grand jury convened by DeKalb District Attorney Robert James is investigating the county’s water and sewer department contracts.
Ellis said he had twice appeared before the grand jury and “answered every question the grand jury has asked.”
“Recent events, however, have caused me to question whether I am being dealt with in good faith,” Ellis said. Those concerns led him to retain legal counsel, he said.
“This is about fairness of process,” said Gillen, who has 30 years of legal experience and will serve as Ellis’ lead counsel. Gillen has worked as an assistant U. S. Attorney in the Northern District of Georgia, the deputy independent counsel for Iran/Contra, and as a criminal defense attorney.
“We can tell when an investigation is being done correctly and we know when it’s not being done correctly and when it’s being done wrong,” Gillen said.
Gillen said the legal team has four areas of concern, including misrepresentations made by DA representatives to Ellis.
When Ellis was asked to appear before the grand jury earlier this month, “he was told that the purpose of his appearance was for him to explain ‘the implementation and future plans for the capital improvement plan,’” Gillen said.
“That wasn’t the reason he was called back,” Gillen said, “but that’s what he was told. We expect all public officials to be honest and direct with the citizens of DeKalb County. That includes the CEO and that includes representatives of the DA’s office.”
Morgan said he was concerned about the DA’s office “lying to a witness who voluntarily appears before the grand jury.”
Another concern of Ellis’ legal team is the circumstances surrounding the search warrant for the Ellis home.
If asked, Ellis would have produced any document that the DA or grand jury wanted to see, Gillen said. “All they had to do was to ask, but they didn’t. They chose to go the route of a search warrant.”
Gillen said, “While Mr. Ellis was in the grand jury [proceeding] in good faith answering questions, members of the media were setting up outside of his house even before the DA’s investigators showed up. Who told them to be there? How did they know to be there? Why were they there?
“It’s not a spectator sport,” Gillen said. “We think that’s wrong. We think that’s improper.”
“There was nothing obtained in those search warrants that the DA’s Office could not have gotten with a simple subpoena or just going online,” said Morgan, who has been in private practice after working for more than 20 years with the DeKalb County District Attorney’s office, including 12 years as DA.
“Apparently this was all a show for the media and that is not the way we conduct criminal investigations in DeKalb County,” Morgan said.
The legal team is also concerned about “what is going on in the grand jury and whether or not the U.S. Constitution is being violated by the representatives of the DA’s Office in the grand jury,” and possible misstatements in the printed media about this matter, Gillen said.
In addition to Ellis’ home and office, searches were conducted Jan. 7 at the office of former Ellis campaign manager Kevin Ross, the county’s information technology, purchasing and contracting, finance and elections offices.
According to the search warrants issued in DeKalb and Fulton counties, investigators were looking for information that would prove various crimes, including racketeering, theft by taking, influencing of officer or employee of state or political subdivision by another officer or employee, conspiracy to defraud state or political subdivision, conspiracy in restraint of free and open competition, wire fraud, theft concerning programs receiving federal funds, bid rigging, and fraud relating to currency.
At Ross’ Atlanta offices, investigators had permission to seize handwriting samples, personal and business financial records, including various bank accounts and tax returns.
The records they were looking for pertained to various county vendor contracts for probation services, lobbyists, watershed management, the watershed capital improvement project, ambulance services and all documents associated with Sentinel Probation Services, Montgomery Watson, Rural Metro Ambulance, Massey-Bowers and the Ferguson Group.
Investigators also wanted email messages for Ellis and several county employees.
At the purchasing and contracting office, investigators looked for records pertaining to the county’s capital improvement program project management proposals, state and federal lobbying contracts and the ambulance or emergency services contract proposal.
“All ‘vendor lists’ created for the purpose of distribution to” Ellis were also a subject of the search, as well as American Express credit card records for Ellis and campaign finance disclosure records, according to the warrants.
“There is absolutely nothing wrong, nothing improper, nothing unethical, nothing immoral, nothing illegal for a candidate to receive support from a vendor doing business with DeKalb County,” Morgan said, apparently talking about the investigation. “Burrell has never promised anyone anything who supported him other than that he would do the best that he could possibly do serving the citizens of DeKalb County.”