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Burrell Ellis

Other Perjury Exonerations
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On June 18, 2013, 55-year-old Burrell Ellis, the chief executive officer of DeKalb County, Georgia, was indicted on charges of attempted extortion, theft, conspiracy and perjury. The indictment alleged Ellis had shaken down four companies that did business with the county to try to pay off his campaign debt.

Ellis went to trial in DeKalb County Circuit Court in September 2014, but on October 21, a mistrial was declared when the jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict.

Ellis went to trial a second time on June 1, 2015. The prosecution presented evidence that in June 2012, Ellis was trying to raise money to eliminate campaign debt and called Brandon Cummings, co-owner of Power and Energy Services, Inc., asking for a $2,500 contribution. Power and Energy had a $250,000 split award contract with another firm to provide generator repairs for the DeKalb County Department of Watershed Management. Under a split award contract, the county can decide which of the two companies awarded the contract actually gets the business.

Ultimately, Cummings’s secretary informed Ellis that the firm would not be making a contribution.

Kevin Walton, who in 2012 was DeKalb County's Director of Purchasing and Contracting, testified that Ellis told him to call Cummings to let Cummings know that Walton had the power to cancel contracts. At that point, Cummings finally made a call to Ellis, but Ellis did not take the call and did not call Cummings back, according to testimony.

Cummings testified that several weeks later, in September of 2012, he began recording his telephone calls with Ellis as part of an investigation by the DeKalb County District Attorney's office.

On September 27, 2012, Ellis finally spoke with Cummings by telephone and asked four times for a campaign contribution. During the recorded call, Ellis told Cummings that he had previously told Walton to “just go ahead and cut [Power and Energy’s] contract” if the company was “not interested in [Ellis’s] services.” Ellis also told Cummings that he had complained to Walton: “If I can’t get a follow up call, why are we doing business with this company?”

Also during the call, Ellis, when Cummings asked why he should make a contribution, replied, “If I’ve got to answer that for you, I'm probably not talking to the right person.”

Cummings testified that the call made him feel that if he did not make the contribution, his company would lose the contract.

The prosecution also presented a September 28, 2012 recorded conversation between Ellis and Walton during which Ellis said the county should let Cummings’s company’s contract expire and to put a note in Power and Energy’s file that the company does not “return phone calls” in case Power and Energy tried to win a contract in the future. Walton told the jury that such a note in a vendor’s file guaranteed the company would never win another contract in DeKalb County.

Eventually, Power and Energy’s contract was put on hold and the company received no more work from the county. Although Ellis had told Walton that Power and Energy’s contract should be ended because of Cummings’s failure to return Ellis’s phone calls, Walton told the jury that was not a valid reason to cancel a contract.

The prosecution also presented evidence that Ellis, during an appearance before the grand jury, was asked if had “ever” ordered a vendor not be given work for failing to return phone calls. Ellis replied that although he was a “stickler about returning phone calls,” and that he had discussed with vendors his expectation “that they return phone calls,” his answer was “no,” and that he had “never” ordered that a contract be canceled or work not be given to a vendor based on that vendor's failure to return phone calls. Ellis also responded “no” when he was asked if he had ever ordered that a DeKalb County vendor with an award under a split contract not be given work. In addition, Ellis also told the grand jury, “I don't get involved in who gets work and who doesn't get work.”

The prosecution called one of the grand jurors to testify that the grand jury did not believe Ellis was telling the truth.

Ellis, who by then had been stripped of his job, testified in his own defense. He denied that Power and Energy had lost its contract for failing to make a campaign contribution, and he denied that he had lied to the grand jury.

On July 1, 2015, the jury convicted Ellis of one count of attempted extortion in dealings with Cummings, and three counts of perjury. The jury acquitted Ellis of counts relating to the three other companies as well as charges of theft of services based on claims that employees were performing political work while on the county payroll. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison and ordered to complete 300 hours of community service. Ellis was released from prison on parole on March 1, 2016.

In November 2016, the Georgia Supreme Court reversed the convictions and ordered a new trial. The court reversed the perjury convictions because the trial judge should not have allowed the grand juror to testify. The court said that “the materiality of Ellis’s alleged false statements was ultimately a question to be resolved by the trial jury based on objective evidence,” not “subjective evidence” from a grand juror.

The court also reversed the conviction for attempted extortion. The court held that the trial judge had erroneously barred the defense from presenting evidence of Ellis’s interactions with other vendors from whom Ellis had solicited campaign contributions.

The court noted that Walton testified about a recorded conversation with Ellis during which they discussed DeKalb County vendors in general. Ellis mentioned that he had made a list of vendors who had and who had not made campaign contributions to him, and discussed leaving certain vendors alone.

Walton said, “Yeah, when he said that he was just going to leave them alone, then I didn’t write their name down or anything. That – that lets me know that he's not going to reach out to them anymore, that he’s basically done with them. And, you know, I didn’t know whether or not they had given a campaign contribution or not. But normally, when he tells me that he’s going to leave someone alone, they have contributed a campaign contribution already.”

During another recorded conversation with Walton, Ellis said, “You know me. I’m not pressuring anybody. How many people have told me they have a corporate policy and they can't give? I’m keeping a record of these people, and some of them have said that we don’t give to political campaigns….I’ve never once said, ‘Don’t do business with somebody because they won’t contribute to my [campaign].’ ”

Under questioning by the prosecution, Walton was asked if Ellis’s statement was “consistent” with his past experience with Ellis. “No, it was not,” Walton had replied.

The defense argued on appeal that the trial judge had limited the defense from introducing evidence only about vendors named in the indictment, but that Walton’s testimony opened the door to allow the defense to expand its evidence to include Ellis’s conduct toward other vendors.

“(W)e conclude that the State went beyond the boundaries that had been imposed on the defense,” the court ruled. “By doing so, the State created an implication that Ellis had a general policy of pressuring vendors to contribute to his campaign and that Ellis was being dishonest when he stated in one of the recordings that he did not have a problem with, or seek retaliation against, vendors who did not contribute to his campaign.”

“When the State made the…implication through questions to Walton about vendors in general, the State opened the door for Ellis to defend himself against that implication by presenting evidence of his own about his interactions with other vendors besides those listed in the indictment,” the court said. “We do not find the trial court's decision to exclude the evidence about other vendors, despite the State opening the door to such evidence to be harmless, because we cannot say that it is highly probable that the exclusion of this evidence did not contribute to the verdict.”

“Indeed, Ellis was acquitted of all other extortion charges against him, and we cannot say the jury's consideration of the only attempted extortion charge upon which he was found guilty may not have been affected by its inability to consider evidence relating to other vendors that could have rebutted the implication by the State that Ellis attempted to extort County vendors as a matter of general practice,” the court held.

On February 6, 2017, the prosecution dismissed the charges. DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston said, “Our decision has not been made lightly. After four years, two trials, countless employees and financial resources, in the interest of judicial economy and consideration of taxpayer costs, we believe it is time to close this chapter and move forward.”

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 2/23/2017
State:Georgia
County:DeKalb
Most Serious Crime:Perjury
Additional Convictions:Official Misconduct
Reported Crime Date:2012
Convicted:2015
Exonerated:2017
Sentence:1 year and 6 months
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:54
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No