The Return of Burrell Ellis

I am imagining the moment Burrell Ellis walks back into his old office as DeKalb CEO once again, reinstated with three weeks left in his term in office, after eight months in stir and a year of appeal time to contemplate just where to stick the shiv.

How easy might it be for him to channel his inner Kevin Spacey, to drink deep of Alexander Dumas and Quentin Tarantino, and blow the entire edifice to hell?

Oh, but Ellis was the quiet one, right? Urkel as CEO. The quotidian alternative to the volatile, abrasively confrontational Vernon Jones. And never mind that Ellis looks just as much like Gus Fring as Jaleel White.

Ellis was offered a deal. Ellis said no. And Ellis fought through two trials, a jail sentence and an appeal to be standing atop the smoking ruin. I wouldn’t bet on equanimity.  

The Georgia Supreme Court overturned Ellis’ conviction on perjury and attempted extortion charges because Judge Courtney Johnson threatened to throw Ellis and his lawyers in jail if they even tried to argue that Ellis wasn’t shaking down everyone, and then unfairly allowed prosecutors to introduce testimony suggesting he did just that.

They also threw it out because the DA, Robert James, called a grand juror to testify about an apparent lie in court, which is not a way to prove the materiality of a falsehood … and is just weird.

The trial was clearly bizarre. When the district attorney has to take the stand himself to make the case that the prosecution wasn’t political, and is exposed to cross-examination by the man he’s prosecuting, something has gone terribly, terribly wrong.

He might still be found guilty if the new DA, Sherry Boston, decides to take a third swing at a curveball. Let us not forget, though, that the appeal didn’t overturn Ellis’ conviction because he was actually innocent. The court made a point of noting that a reasonable juror could have found Ellis guilty on the merits.

Ellis practiced payback. That much is clear from the trial.

What does payback look like now?

There are two county commission meetings between now and when incoming CEO Michael Thurmond would be sworn in.  (There’s no meeting in the last week of the year.) Ellis would not be operating with a full crew in any case, because Gregory Adams takes office immediately and there’s no way Adams will play ball on plainly corrupt business. Ellis doesn’t have four votes.

He might just take his accrued pay, make a perfunctory appearance Tuesday at the county commission meeting and go on vacation. Perhaps the vindication of an acquittal is enough.

But Ellis still would have operational control over the day-to-day mechanisms of the government. He has access to records. He can fire people. He can instruct county staff to take whatever action he deems appropriate. He can block payments to vendors (highly, highly unlikely, given what we’re watching for, but still.)

Could he direct the police to begin criminal investigations of staff or political opponents? Maybe. Would they listen, knowing he’s gone in three weeks? Probably not.

If I were in his position, I’d be after as much inside dope as possible about the people who screwed me. I would be copying every file in the county, the better to send little thank you notes in the form of criminal evidence to state and federal prosecutors, competitive intelligence to business rivals and opposition research on political opponents.

Ellis is coming. Expect payback.

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Dave Bearse
Dave Bearse

Is it technically an acquittal?

The grayest circumstances are the toughest. I think this one had a lot of gray, including Ellis going over the line a couple of times.


Gus Fring sounds about right.