Assistant to DeKalb CEO Ellis invokes 5th Amendment 30 times

| September 23, 2014
Joanne Wise, client partner with Ciber, an IT consulting firm, continues her testimony in court on Monday, September 22, 2014, in the trial of suspended DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis.  (Atlanta Journal Constitution Photo)

Joanne Wise, client partner with Ciber, an IT consulting firm, continues her testimony in court on Monday, September 22, 2014, in the trial of suspended DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis. (Atlanta Journal Constitution Photo)

DECATUR  — The lead attorney for DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis, Craig Gillen, asked for a mistrial after Ellis’ former assistant testified in the influence peddling trial in Decatur.

Gillen said Hall prejudiced the jury after invoking her Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate herself 30 times.  Most of those times, Superior Court Judge Courtney Johnson ordered Hall to answer the questions. Hall wasn’t required to testify about whether she had accepted money from vendors or perjured herself before a special grand jury.

Hall said Ellis was “upset” that Joanne Wise, who worked for a technology contractor called Ciber Inc., hadn’t returned his phone calls for campaign contributions.

“He was angry they had not returned his phone call, that there was no excuse for them not having returned his phone call,” Hall told jurors.

“He indicated he was going to tell their boss they provided poor customer service and they were rude.”  Superior Court Judge Courtney Johnson rejected Gillen’s request.

Hall told a special grand jury she indirectly received money from vendors, but Senior Assistant District Attorney Christopher Timmons said the money was a gift and didn’t rise to the level of bribery.

Joanne Wise, who worked for Ciber Inc., said she told Ellis in March 2012 that the company wasn’t going to do business with DeKalb County anymore because of a disagreement over contract terms.

“He said that’s a good thing, because you weren’t going to get more business anyway,” Wise told a jury.

Wise said Ellis grew angry and rude when she wouldn’t return his phone calls, and he threatened to report her for poor customer service.

“And then he said, ‘and you call yourself a good mom,’” Wise said.

“My impression of what the meeting was about, really, was that the meeting was about a campaign contribution,” Morris told jurors.

“I needed to do the right thing,” said Chris Morris, director of the DeKalb County Community Development Department. “The company had been responsive. Obviously it was not the response that was desired.”

Morris was the first witness of the day in Ellis’ ongoing trial. He’s accused of strong-arming county contractors into making campaign donations.  The company, National Property Institute, later made a contribution and didn’t lose its $1 million contract with the county to rehab foreclosed homes.

Morris, a long-time DeKalb County government employee is testifying about a “strange” request from DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis to arrange a meeting with a contractor he had sought campaign contributions from.  Ellis’ trial entered its second week of testimony Monday with Chris Morris, director of the DeKalb County Community Development Department, taking the stand. Ellis is fighting charges that he shook down vendors for campaign cash.

Morris said Ellis asked her to arrange a meeting with National Property Institute, which had declined to give Ellis a campaign donation.
Ellis told Morris the meeting wouldn’t be about political fundraising — it was about the company’s lack of responsiveness to his phone calls.

“He said his initial call was about a campaign contribution, but now it’s not about that,” Morris told the jury. “He said he wanted me to set the meeting up because they were non-responsive.”

Ellis’ primary defense so far appears to be that he was concerned about vendors who wouldn’t return his phone calls, and it didn’t matter whether they gave him a donation.

Some content courtesy The Atlanta Journal Constitution

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