Witness after witness in the corruption trial against DeKalb’s suspended CEO have testified that the Burrell Ellis threatened to cut the contracts of those who did not return his phone calls about campaign solicitations.
One of those witnesses on Sept. 22, was Chris Morris, director of the county’s community development department.
According to Morris, Ellis in October 2012 asked her to schedule a meeting with the real estate firm National Property Institute (NPI) because the company had not responded to phone calls he had made requesting campaign contributions.
Morris testified that Ellis said that although his initial calls were about campaign donations “that was not what the meeting was about. It was about the vendor being nonresponsive.”
Ellis is facing four counts of criminal attempt to commit theft by extortion; three counts of theft by taking; two counts of criminal attempt to commit false statements and writings; three counts of coercion of other employees to give anything of value for political purposes; a count of conspiracy in restraint of free and open competition; and a count of conspiracy to defraud a political subdivision.
“That was a call—it was one that I had never had before,” Morris said about the call she received from the CEO. “To get a call about a campaign contributions…was still different. I had not received that type of call before.”
Morris said she felt I needed to schedule the meeting “because he was the CEO. I did what I needed to as an employee of the county.
“No employee should go through that,” Morris said. An “employee should never be brought into [that] situation.”
Allen Mitchell, assistant director of the community development department, testified that when Morris told her about Ellis’s instruction that she schedule the meeting with NPI he was concerned.
“My red flags went up,” Mitchell said. “I advised her not to schedule a meeting. I told her if she had to schedule the meeting, I told her not to go to the meeting. That’s not something we could be involved with.”
Morris said that during the meeting, which was attended by Greg and Trina Shealey of NPI, Ellis and Morris, Ellis said he was concerned about the lack of responsiveness after talking to Trina Shealey about a campaign contribution.
“I was surprised,” Morris said. “I had thought…that they had not responded to him at all.”
Had she known that Ellis had spoken with Trina Shealey, Morris said, “I don’t think I would have arranged that meeting. To have talked with the Shealeys, that means there was a response.”
During the meeting Ellis was “firm, clear and direct” and asked the Shealeys, “How can we trust you if you don’t return phone calls?” said Morris, adding that there had been no performance issues or complaints about NPI.
In another meeting with Morris and other county officials, Ellis inquired about cancelling the NPI contract and asked “how could we keep doing business with a company like this,” Morris said.
Morris said she just stated the facts.
“NPI had not done anything wrong,” Morris said. “There is no reason to end a contract because a call is not returned to the CEO.”
Morris said to end the contract would have been “giving the impression” that it was the result of phone calls not being returned to Ellis.
Under cross-examination, Morris admitted that Ellis never instructed her to cancel the contract. She said she later learned that company contributed to Ellis’ campaign fund.
Joanne Wise, a client partner working out of Raleigh, N.C., for CIBER Inc., a technology consulting firm, said she received four or five phones calls from Ellis.
In a voicemail, Ellis identified himself as the CEO of DeKalb County and asked for a return call, Wise said. She returned the phone call because she thought it was in reference to “some issue that we needed to resolve,” she said.
Ellis told Wise that since CIBER had received a benefit from the county, the company should give to his campaign. Wise responded by telling him that her company has a policy of not donating to political campaigns.
Wise said Ellis then solicited a donation from her personally. She told him that she was in no position to make a donation, being a mother of four, including one special needs child.
“That was still not enough” for Ellis, Wise said. She finally agreed to check her company’s policy again “to see if anything had changed.”
After that, she did not return Ellis’ continued phone calls, which made Ellis “progressively…irritated and annoyed that I wasn’t calling him back,” Wise said.
In a phone call that she did take, Ellis told Wise, “You will not get any more business from DeKalb County, I can tell you that,” she said.
In March 2012 Wise told Ellis that CIBER would no longer be doing business with the county because they could not agree with the terms of the new contract.
“He said that’s a good thing, because you weren’t going to get more business anyway,” Wise testified.
On Sept. 17 a secretly recorded conversation between Ellis and a contractor was played in court. In the September 2012 conversation, Ellis could be heard asking Brandon Cummings, co-owner of Power and Energy Services, for a campaign contribution of up to $2,500 to help eliminate the debt from his reelection bid.
“It takes about a million dollars to run a race like this,” Ellis said in the recorded phone call. “And we’ve raised about three quarters of that but we do have some lingering campaign debt.”
Ellis told Cummings that after making several unsuccessful attempts to reach him, a Power and Energy Services office assistant told Ellis “that they weren’t interested in my services,” Ellis said in the phone conversation.
“I’ve got to tell you, at the time, I got taken aback by that…,” Ellis said in the recording. “
Ellis stated that he then told former purchasing director Kelvin Walton that Power and Energy Services is “a company and we’re the customer. For somebody to tell me, not knowing why I was calling, to tell me that they weren’t interested in our services, then we’re not interested in theirs, and just go ahead and cut the contract,” Ellis said in the recording.
Ellis also said he was concerned that he had not received return phone calls from Power and Energy.
“If I can’t get a follow-up call, why is my company doing business—why are we doing business with this company?” Ellis told Cummings in the phone call.
In the recording Cummings told Ellis that as a Cobb County business, he did not see the benefit of donating to a DeKalb County political campaign.
“I could ask the question why is DeKalb County doing business with a Cobb County business,” Ellis said.
The recording of the Ellis conversation was arranged by investigators in the DeKalb DA’s office.
In the recorded conversation, Cummings said he was uncomfortable with the call.
The conversation turned difficult for me,” Cummings testified. “When I realized what was going on…it got extremely difficult… I it reaffirmed the threat and the actions that were already there. I’ve never had a phone call like that before.”
Cummings said that after the Ellis call, contractor said all outstanding work with the county was put on hold by the county.
15,653 total views, 1 views today