DeKalb corruption

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

Suspended DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis’ fate is still not known. A jury could not reach unanimous verdicts on any counts in Ellis’ recent corruption trial. The mistrial has spawned a fury of opinions. Today, an Emory University-based ethicist criticizes jury members for considering personal feelings about Ellis and condemns Georgia governments for their corrupt legacy. The jury’s forewoman writes about the difficulties of attaining unanimous verdicts, and a retired federal prosecutor urges Ellis to step down and let DeKalb begin healing.

Note: There are three columns today.

A loathsome iceberg of corruption

By Edward L. Queen

In a democracy, people get the kind of government they deserve. As clichéd as that statement sounds, its verisimilitude was demonstrated yet again with the hung jury in the corruption trial of suspended DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis.

While not wishing to second-guess the jurors in their review of the facts, reports suggesting that several jurors were reluctant to convict Ellis simply because of his pleasant demeanor, concern about ruining his life or sympathy for him are outrageous. I say this as a former defense attorney, 90 percent of whose clients were in the legal system solely because they were poor, dumb or unlucky. The overwhelming majority of them deserved sympathy, but rarely received it.

Ellis was not and is not one of those people. Ellis, who attended an Ivy League college and is a lawyer, was not on trial because of circumstances beyond his control; he was on trial because he allegedly chose to cajole and threaten companies doing business with the county into making campaign contributions. That claim alone should have generated outrage and condemnation. Ellis was not on trial as a private citizen. His trial was about abuse of power as an elected governmental official. The absence of outage at the mere thought of his alleged extortions is disturbing, distressing and disgusting.

Currently ranked last in the nation in governmental ethics — beating out such big names as Illinois — Georgia has experienced, and is experiencing, several high-profile corruption scandals. The Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal; a governor who enriched himself through his company’s no-bid contracts with the state; numerous examples of self-dealing and misappropriation of funds in Gwinnett County; and the stench surrounding the planned Cobb County stadium are only the tip of a vast, loathsome iceberg of corruption and putrescence that befouls our state and upon which we risk foundering the ship of government.

Where are the good people of Georgia on this? Where is the outrage? Where is the shame? Far too many people seem to think that they can fence themselves off from it by incorporating new cities and isolating themselves. Although there may be good reasons for incorporation, walling ourselves off in the hope that it will protect us from corruption is not the answer. The stench of corruption wafts over and through those walls and permeates everything.

Where are the religious leaders? Where were the churches, temples, synagogues and mosques when the legislature debated the ethics bill? When the budget committee debated funding ethics enforcement in the state?

Preachers and ministers, whose duty is call out sin and denounce evil, who are quick to judge the weak, must not stand silently in their pulpits and collude as the powerful lie, cheat and steal. They must not have 20/20 vision only in seeing the sinners across town, but have beams in their eyes when it comes to the well-dressed, clean-shaven sinners in their pews who pilfer the public coffers. Their vision fails them if they peruse scripture and do not take to heart the passage in Deuteronomy 16:19-20 that reads, “Thou shalt not pervert judgment; thou shalt not respect persons; neither shalt thou take a gift; for a gift doth blind the eyes of the wise, and pervert the words of the righteous. Justice, justice shalt thou pursue …” That donation for a new wing of the building or the increase in the clergyperson’s salary could and too often do become the gifts that blind and pervert their words. I could multiply texts, and unfortunately, examples.

We have corruption in Georgia government because we allow it, those of us sitting in the pews, leaning over our voting machines and reading the newspaper. Everyone who treats ethics charges as partisan politics and overlooks the common good increases the putrefaction of our body politic. The stench attaches to her or him.

The time has come to say enough. Clean government has no party, no color, no ideology, other than the belief that government should be fair, honest, transparent and just. Clean government demands that politicians should not use the public purse for private gain and that all should have equal access to their legislators.

It is time that the people of Georgia rise up and demand not merely stronger ethics laws — lower limits on gifts, greater disclosure and more openness — but also stronger enforcement: greater independence of ethics commissions, stronger investigative powers and more funding. Until then we shall continue to have the kind of government we deserve, one filled with crooks, criminals and cowards.

Edward L. Queen is director of the D. Abbott Turner Program in Ethics and Servant Leadership at Emory University’s Center for Ethics.

Ellis trial: A mission impossible

By Susan Worthy

I received a postcard notifying me of jury duty. No worries. It would be for one trial or one day the card said.

Since most cases are less than a week, and there is always the chance of not being selected, I arrived at the courthouse with an open mind. While waiting for the facilitator to give us instructions on how the day would precede, a video played reminding us of our civic duty. As an honest person, I identified with the message. I’m certain I would want a jury of my peers to represent me or my family if there was ever a situation where we were charged with a crime. I would want someone like me to be on the jury, who could set aside personal opinions and deliver a verdict based on evidence.

Then the facilitator dropped a bomb: “Everyone here today is for the jury for Burrell Ellis.” After four days of jury selection, I was chosen.

Once the trial started, my nerves went into overdrive. This was not an ordinary case. This was Burrell Ellis, CEO of the county in which I have lived for 42 years. For the next five weeks, my life belonged to DeKalb County. From 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. I was in the courtroom, and from 5 p.m. until 9 a.m. the courtroom was in my head.

My stress level elevated. We discovered early in our deliberations that obtaining a unanimous verdict would be no small task. We alerted the judge on several occasions of our situation, but we were told to continue deliberating. Every day in the jury room was a new adventure. Every time we would take two steps forward toward reaching a verdict on a count, we would take one step back on another count.

Just as the pendulum on the clock swings back and forth, so did the emotions of the jurors and the votes on each count. The desire to reach a unanimous verdict on at least some of the counts became a mission. The mission, unfortunately, was a mission impossible. We did not have the necessary tools in our tool belt as a unit to reach a desirable outcome. Judge Courtney Johnson armed us with laws and the defense and prosecuting attorneys gave us a mountain of evidence to assist us with our mission. However, as ordinary citizens of the county, we were not formally educated on the complexities of legal jargon. We could not overcome the laws on grave suspicion and reasonable doubt as a unit.

When Judge Johnson announced a mistrial, I had a feeling of relief. I could return to my life, but my way of thinking about our judicial process would be forever changed. I now understand how guilty men and women can be acquitted by a jury of their peers.

Everyone wants to know if Burrell Ellis is guilty. Guilt or innocence is in the minds of the 12 jurors who are supposed to give a unanimous verdict as a unit, but must arrive at that verdict as individuals.

Susan Worthy, a healthcare analyst, was jury forewoman on the Burrell Ellis corruption trial, which ended in a mistrial.

End the clash of titans

By Allen Moye

District Attorney Robert James faces a difficult decision about a case that seemed so promising during the investigation, but, in court, did not live up to the promise. Suspended DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis also has a difficult decision to make about his own future. Both men were elected to protect the best interests of DeKalb County, and I hope their sense of duty will guide each to bring this “clash of titans” to an end.

In only his first term, James has brought Ellis, the county’s CEO, and Crawford Lewis, the superintendent of schools, to court. I am sure that for Mr. James neither case produced the expected outcome. But he must recognize that he has done DeKalb County good service by highlighting the pervasive nature of the “culture of corruption” which continues to sully DeKalb’s once-fine name, and has stirred to action DeKalb voters whose silence over the last 14 years allowed that culture to arise. In a democracy, government belongs to the people, and Mr. James has shown the people of DeKalb that they must take back their government and root out the corruption.

And he has found allies in unlikely places. Interim CEO Lee May, who once dragged his feet on some reform issues, has become a champion of ethical government. While Mr. May’s organizational task force excluded citizens from membership, other organizations composed of ordinary citizens, such as Blueprint DeKalb, DeKalb Citizens for Good Government and South DeKalb Improvement Association have organized throughout the county and demanded reform.

Even if he does not send Ellis to prison, James will not have failed because DeKalb County is on the mend. Politicians who put their own interests above those of the county may soon be history.

Burrell Ellis also has a decision to make. In light of the information coming from the jury about how deeply divided they were during their deliberations, he could decide to stand and fight. Assuming he can continue to afford it, he has assembled a very talented legal team to defend him. But Ellis must consider that he can no longer lead DeKalb County. The evidence presented was damning and his impaired reputation will hinder, not help, DeKalb as it tries to recover from this nightmare. Were Ellis to return to office, no honest and competent business would ever bid on a county contract. No honest contractor would ever seek a permit. And the taxpayers would continue to spend millions to pay for substandard work performed by those whose only qualification was their willingness to pay tribute.

In the interest of the people of DeKalb County who elected both James and Ellis, these two political titans must end this nightmare and settle this case. Only then can DeKalb County really begin to heal and rebuild its reputation.

Allen Moye is a retired federal prosecutor and lifelong DeKalb County resident.


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