Scathing grand jury report released
Jennifer Ffrench-Parker | 8/23/2013, 6:05 a.m.
DeKALB COUNTY The special purpose grand jury report that indicted DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis fought for months to keep from the public was released Aug. 21 by DeKalb Superior Court judges.
The 80-page report details widespread abuses of county contracting dating back to the administration of former DeKalb CEO Vernon Jones. It documents Ellis’ aggressive solicitation of county contractors for campaign contributions of $2,500 to $25,000, and documents his interference and manipulation in county contracting, and threatening uncooperative vendors.
The publication of the report comes seven months after its completed-on date of Jan. 18, 2013. The jury sued in Georgia Supreme Court to have the report released.
Through testimonies, documents and recordings, the 23 grand jurors, which met weekly for a year to examine the the operation of county’s Watershed Management Department which is implementing a $1.35 billion Capital Improvement Plan.
It found invoice padding, contract fraud and bid rigging.
The report shows how close friends of Jones and Ellis double-dipped and got paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for their connections to them, and how they manipulated county contracts and the LSBE program to pad their pockets.
On Jones’ watch, the report says Champion Tree Service, owned by Paul Champion, allegedly overbilled the county for $8.8 million between June 2003 and early 2006. Before the county contract, Champion made $50,000 a year and had no experience with municipal contracts for easement clearing services. Despite complaints that the work wasn’t being done, the report said inspectors were instructed to sign off on the company’s invoices.
The report details how Jones’ friend Jeffrey Walker, “a business development consultant,” collected $8,000 a month from multiple county vendors simultaneously, while his twin brother, John, another close friend of Jones, was director of DeKalb Watershed Management.
In one case documented in the report, Jeffrey Walker was paid $88,000 for six months of “technical writing and proofreading services” by Parsons Water Infrastructures Inc., which won a contract for design work for the Polebridge-Snapfinger Wastewater Plant Expansion in 2005.
In recordings and testimonies, the report documents how Ellis called vendors repeatly and threatened those who didn’t return his telephone calls in a timely manner, or were reluctant to, or refused to pay. In several recordings Ellis told vendors that it takes $1 million to run for the office, and he needed to close a $200,000 gap to retire campaign debts.
Vendors testified that they “made the campaign contribution because they were afraid that their contract with the county would be terminated if they did not.”
In one case, a vendor who got a $4 million contract refused to make the $25,000 campaign contribution requested by Ellis.
“Mr. Merrell stated that he wished to withdraw from his contract if Merrell Brothers, Inc. was required to make a contribution, because that is not the way he does business,” the report said.
When vendors didn’t pay, Ellis is heard in recordings directing employees to “just dry them up,” meaning to not issue any additional work under the contracts or to allow the contract to expire. He also directed employees to place notes in the vendors file that they were “not responsive.”