Burrell Ellis expressed his gratitude as he spoke to the press on Wednesday, after being reinstated to his position as DeKalb County CEO. A jubilant Ellis told supporters and consitutents, “I want to thank all of the citizens who stopped me on the streets and gave me well wishes. At this point I just want to savor the moment and move as God directs.”
Original Charges and Conviction
Ellis had been suspended from office since July 2013, when he faced criminal charges for extortion. Ellis was accused of pressuring a Cobb County company, Power and Energy Services, to donate money to Ellis’ 2012 re-election campaign. DeKalb District Attorney Robert James argued that Ellis threatened to end the company’s $250,000 contract with the county if the donation was not made.
When Ellis was suspended, Governor Nathan Deal appointed then County Commissioner Lee May as Interim CEO. May remained in that position until this month.
In July 2015, Ellis was found guilty of the extortion, along with three perjury counts, and sentenced to 18 months in prison. In March 2016, Ellis was released from jail but remained suspended as his case was still on appeal.
Read the Supreme Court decision in it’s entirety here.
On Nov. 30, the Georgia Supreme Court overturned Ellis’ conviction, stating that Ellis had not received a fair trail ““based on certain evidentiary errors that occurred.” The Supreme Court ruled that the trial court erred in allowing a Grand Juror to testify at Ellis’ trial in support of the State’s efforts to prove the perjury charges against him. In regards to the extortion charges against Ellis, the Supreme Court found that Ellis should have been allowed to present evidence demonstrating his interactions with vendors whom he did not pressure for donations. Based on this ruling, the case has been returned to the local court, but it is not yet clear is the district attorney’s office will seek a new trial.
“I am enjoying the day and meeting with constituents. I feel completely vindicated.”
While Ellis is enjoying feelings of vindication, he has far more than that to be happy about. It has been reported that Ellis is entitled to back-pay amounting to $104,380, after taxes and deductions—pay which was held during his suspension. However, Ellis now has less than 3 weeks remaining in his term, which ends on Dec. 31.
Newly elected CEO Michael Thurmond will take office in January. From 2013 to 2015, Thurmond had served as the interim superintendent of the DeKalb County School District, the third largest district in the state of Georgia. Previously, Thurmond had served six years in the Georgia Senate and 12 years as state labor commissioner, becoming the first non-incumbent African American to be elected to statewide office in Georgia. Due to his success at turning around struggling departments and organizations, Thurmond has gained the reputation of being a “fix it” specialist.
Indeed, ongoing allegations of corruption and mismanagement recently led several state lawmakers, including Governor Deal, to consider eliminating the DeKalb CEO position altogether. However, the prospect of Thurmond taking over the position seems to have quieted such efforts.
Thurmond will assume leadership of a county which, in addition to chronic complaints of administrative dysfunction, has had a history of corruption scandals. Perceptions of corruption in the county were so widespread that Interim CEO Lee May hired two investigators, former Attorney General Mike Bowers and Richard Hyde, to conduct an investigation. However, when the report concluded that there was rampant mismanagement, May dismissed the report and lashed out at the investigators.
The Burrell Ellis case was just one of many that outgoing DeKalb District Attorney Robert James successfully prosecuted. However, during the democratic primary in May, James’ opponent, Solicitor Sherry Boston, emphasized the fact that James needed two trials to get the Ellis conviction. She also highlighted the ongoing corruption in the county and examples of James himself needing to reimburse questionable public expenditures and being fined for late campaign finance filings. Boston won the primary and was unopposed in the general election, meaning she will soon become the new district attorney. It will be in her hands to decide whether to pursue a new trial for the charges which are still pending against Burrell Ellis.
When asked about the possibility of a new trial, Ellis replied that he is not focusing on any pending charges and that he is “just living in the moment.”