DA denies claims of wrongdoing in Ellis case

Ken Watts | 1/24/2014, 7:20 a.m.
DeKalb District Attorney Robert James was forced to testify at a Jan. 23 hearing into motions accusing him of a ...
DeKalb District Attorney Robert James (left) testified on Jan. 23 that he did not target suspended CEO Burrell Ellis, who says James illegally taped him and has withheld the recordings from his defense team.

DeKalb District Attorney Robert James was forced to testify at a Jan. 23 hearing into motions accusing him of a political vendetta against suspended CEO Burrell Ellis.

Ellis filed the motions seeking to quash his indictments on corruption and other charges or to disqualify James’ office and appoint a special prosecutor.

During nearly two hours of testimony, James strongly denied allegations of wrongdoing in the indictment of Ellis.

“I started hearing evidence of the CEO shaking people down on tape, threatening vendors – things of that nature – and did my job,” he said.

Prosecutors asked Superior Court Judge Courtney Johnson to exempt James from testifying, but Johnson denied the request.

James strongly denied targeting Ellis.

“It’s evil to use that authority,” James said. “It’s wrong to use that authority in a vindictive fashion. It’s abhorrent.”

Ellis was re-indicted on Jan. 16 on 14 felonies, including extortion, theft, coercion, bribery and perjury. He was first indicted on 15 counts on June 18, 2013, and removed from office by Gov. Nathan Deal on July 16. He is receiving his full $150,000-a-year salary pending the outcome of his trial.

Ellis’ motions, filed Jan. 9, accuse James of “numerous gross abuses of power and individual rights” and “unrestrained witch hunt” and said he illegally taped him and has withheld the recordings from his defense team.

The standing-room-only crowd in the courtroom included Ellis supporters wearing red “I support Burrell Ellis” buttons. His wife, Phillipa, and his mother, Roberta, sat behind him in the front row.

Craig Gillen, Ellis’ lead attorney, also called former Chief Assistant DA Don Geary and John Melvin, who once headed the DA’s public integrity unit and the DeKalb corruption probe.

Geary, now chief assistant district attorney in Cobb County, testified that James showed him a video recording of Ellis taken during the investigation that led to the indictment of Ellis. After seeing the video, Geary said he told James his office had committed two felonies because both the video and the audio of Ellis’ conversation were captured illegally.

James said Geary never told him he was committing a felony.

“If Don had told me that, I’d have said, ‘Oh, my God.’ … I would have stopped the process and had a conversation.”

Under questioning from Assistant DA Anna Cross, James said his relationship with Geary was strained in the months before he resigned in December 2012.

Asked why he left the DA’s office, Geary paused for a long moment.

“Because I didn’t want to be arrested,” he said.

James said he suspected Geary of leaking information on the Ellis case to Channel 2, which was waiting outside Ellis’ home the day investigators raided it on Jan. 7, 2013.

“I had some concerns,” James said. “I absolutely did. … By the end of his tenure, Don and I didn’t have much of a relationship at all.”

Melvin, who also resigned from the DA’s office in December 2012 and now also works in Cobb, said he never saw any secretly recorded videos of Ellis but that Geary talked about a video he’d just seen and said he thought “Robert had committed a felony.”

Melvin disagreed with Geary’s testimony that James directed investigators to focus on Ellis. He said the evidence against Ellis turned prosecutors’ attention toward him.

James said both Geary and Melvin denied having anything to do with leaks from his office, but when they left the leaks stopped.

The hearing was scheduled to continue on Friday.