DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. — The secretary of former DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis reluctantly took the stand late Monday afternoon after a legal battle that's gone on for days.
Nina Hall tried to have the judge quash her subpoena, citing fear that she would incriminate herself.
As Channel 2 Action News first reported earlier this year, Hall is alleged to have lied when she first testified before a special grand jury, then corrected herself by admitting she accepted cash from vendors.
"You're basically putting it out to the jury that she's guilty of something without actually saying it and that is inappropriate," Judge Courtney Johnson told Ellis' defense team, but she ultimately decided to allow limited questioning of Hall.
"I overheard Mr. Ellis talking very loudly in a very angry tone to someone," Hall eventually told jurors, recalling a phone call she witnessed.
Hall said Ellis told her he was speaking with Joanne Wise, who had already told the jury Ellis yelled at her when she refused to donate to his campaign, which violated her company's policy. Wise worked for an information technology firm called CIBER.
"How did he respond to your statement that neither you or your company could give a contribution?" asked prosecutors.
Wise replied, "'Then you will not get any more business from DeKalb County, I can tell you that.'"
Wise's testimony is consistent with the owners of two other companies who also refused Ellis' repeated requests for campaign donations.
Three county employees also testified regarding Ellis' actions after he was denied contributions.
"He asked about canceling the contract and how could we keep doing business with a company like this," testified DeKalb Community Development Director Chris Morris.
Morris said in her 38 years working for DeKalb County, she had never before witnessed a CEO directly interacting with a vendor regarding performance or payment issues. She oversaw the contract for National Property Institute (NPI), another company named as a victim in the Ellis indictment.
"I definitely wanted us to continue our contract with NPI, because they had not done anything at all in violation of the contract," testified Morris.
Ellis' defense team argued that the CEO was actually upset about the failure to return his phone calls rather than the companies failing to give to his campaign.
Prosecutors asked Morris, "Would you consider meeting with a vendor about his failure to return a campaign call legitimate county business?"
"No, it's not," replied Morris. "Because that employee should never be brought into a situation like that."
Nina Hall clearly felt loyal to her former boss, breaking down in tears when asked to point Ellis out to the jury.
But it was her own freedom she worried about during her testimony.
"On the advice of my counsel, I exercise my Fifth Amendment right to remain silent," replied Hall to every question asked of her.
The judge forced her to answer most of them anyway after prosecutors agreed not to ask anything that would lead to an incriminating answer.
The defense team was furious when the judge limited their ability to cross-examine Hall to just two questions.
"You perjured yourself when you were asked in the grand jury under oath whether or not you had received any money or any gifts from any vendors, isn't that correct?" defense attorney Craig Gillen asked Hall.
"On the advice of my counsel, I am exercising my Fifth amendment right to remain silent," she replied.
Gillen also prodded, "Kelvin Walton served as a middle man to give you cash money from vendors to deliver to you, isn't that correct?"
Johnson did not require Hall to answer either of the defense's questions and did not allow the defense to ask if she ever did anything in return for those companies.
Hall sat on the selection committee for Wise's CIBER contract and more than a dozen others.
The defense team wanted to signal to jurors that Hall accepted what may be considered cash bribes from vendors and lied about it under oath.
DeKalb District Attorney Robert James initially agreed on a deal not to prosecute Hall locally, however there is also a pending federal investigation into DeKalb County corruption.
Regarding his conversation with federal prosecutors, Hall's attorney, William Thomas, told the judge, "I have been told they are not clear on what her status is; whether she's a target, or if she's a witness."