DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. — Channel 2 Action News has learned DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis has been fighting to get himself an advance copy of a special grand jury report, so he can fight to keep it from being made public.
The report is the culmination of a year-long investigation into public corruption, which began with allegations of bribery and bid rigging in the county's Watershed Department, but later expanded to include questions about contracts county-wide.
On Monday, investigative reporter Jodie Fleischer obtained documents in which prosecutors asked Georgia's Court of Appeals to stop Judge Mark Anthony Scott from releasing the grand jury's final report to Ellis and his former campaign manager, Kevin Ross, and their attorneys.
The higher court opted not to do that, but refused to seal its own records, shedding light on some of what happened in closed hearings in Scott's court last week.
Last Tuesday, Judge Scott refused to let a Channel 2 investigative producer inside his courtroom, where attorneys for Ellis and Ross were initially granted access to the secret report.
"A lot of times grand jury reports are embarrassing, and sometimes they're not even true, but the process for ferreting that out is a public process," said civil rights attorney Gerry Weber, who is not involved in the case.
Weber questioned the Judge Scott's decision to keep the report private, by failing to dismiss the grand jury.
Prosecutors wrote, 'Upon a majority vote by the judges of the superior court, the special grand jury would have been dissolved and the report Ellis and Ross so badly wanted would have become a public record, to which they would be entitled a copy.'
They continued, 'Instead Ellis and Ross want private sealed access ... in order to compromise the factual findings of the special purpose grand jury.'
But the Ellis and Ross defense teams argued the grand jury has operated outside of its scope and that the unpublished report, or portions of it, should be expunged before released.
That is not unprecedented in DeKalb County. In 2003, Superior Court Judge Gail Flake struck portions of a grand jury report which targeted then-CEO Vernon Jones, and closed the relevant hearings.
The entire report eventually became public anyway, when leaked to Channel 2 Action News.
Prosecutors claim the current case differs because the special grand jury is civil and cannot issue indictments, and the report has not been filed in the clerk's office.
Weber says the public has a right to see all of the report.
"The judge had no right in my view to pick and choose who can see that report. This is the head of DeKalb County. This is a corruption investigation into his conduct, and this is a grand jury of citizens in DeKalb County that spent a year volunteering out of their lives to produce this report, and the citizens have a right to see it," said Weber.
In addition to sealing all of the records at the Superior Court level, Judge Scott issued a gag order in the case, so none of the attorneys would comment on the fight over the report, or whether they have read it yet.
Records filed with the Court of Appeals, show the defense teams want a hearing to try to persuade the judge to throw out parts or all of the grand jury report, before it ever becomes public.
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