by: Jodie Fleischer Updated:
DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. - A Channel 2 Action News investigation has collected and examined some of the same evidence prosecutors have gathered in a probe into government corruption in DeKalb County.
DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis has appeared to be a target of the investigation since district attorney's investigators searched his home and office Jan. 7. The investigation has brought Ellis’ relationship with vendors under scrutiny.
"I want to say emphatically that I have done nothing wrong," Ellis said last month, adding that he was unsure of exactly what investigators were looking for in their searches.
Ellis said grand jurors specifically asked him about how contracts are bid and awarded in the county. But additional search warrants served at the county elections office and at the purchasing department indicate prosecutors are also interested in Ellis' campaign contributions, and vendor lists he requested.
As the CEO of the county, I talk to a number of vendors who do business with the county, but (have) no inappropriate contact with any vendors," said Ellis.
Channel 2 investigative reporter Jodie Fleischer has spent the last several weeks reaching out to companies that won contracts in DeKalb County. Despite Ellis’ denials, some are questioning whether Ellis did have inappropriate contact with some vendors.
One out-of-state vendor said he felt extorted when Ellis personally called him to ask for a $25,000 campaign contribution. He said Ellis did not make any threats, but the vendor felt so uncomfortable, he canceled his own $5 million contract, which he had fought hard to win.
Another vendor told Fleischer her contract was cancelled after she refused to support Ellis' most recent campaign.
Fleischer filed open records requests, and examined all of the money Ellis received from 2007 through 2012. More than 40 percent, or $596,364, came from companies that have or wanted business with DeKalb County. The overwhelming majority were contract winners, outnumbering losing bidders by five to one.
Ellis acknowledges asking vendors to donate to his campaign, but added, "I think what's essential here is never have I been in any, or done anything, that would give anybody a promise in return for a campaign contribution. We're always clear about that."
William Perry, of watchdog group Common Cause Georgia, said Ellis, at the very least, has a perception problem.
"If truly that money doesn't influence you, then turn it down," said Perry.
Perry said Common Cause has repeatedly fought to ban contributions from companies with contracts.
"When a large amount of money is given, you can't help but think they're better than the competition, because they've essentially bought a friendship with you," said Perry.
Records show since May 2011, Metals and Materials Engineers contributed $18,250 to Ellis, and won $5.7 million in contracts.
The Suwanee company did lose a few bids as well, and not all contract winners were donors. Several vendors told Fleischer they had never been approached for donations.
"We have people who contribute to our campaign, some of whom do business with DeKalb County, some of whom don't even live in DeKalb County. People are free to support candidates they believe in," said Ellis.
Records show Ellis received $118,200 from companies that won or bid on contracts from out of state.
Perry says that doesn't look good.
"There's nothing wrong with somebody from out of state wanting a government contract. But then when they're asked to give to a local campaign, the only reason they're being asked is because they have that contract," said Perry, "This is what we call pay to play."
Georgia law does not prohibit candidates from accepting contributions from vendors or bidders.