ATLANTA — A former county leader whose convictions on corruption charges were tossed out by the state’s highest court has been named political director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia.
The organization on Monday announced that former DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis would fill the newly created position, which is meant to expand the organization’s advocacy infrastructure and help push its public policy objectives.
Two of the main priorities are promoting fair elections and advocating for criminal justice reform, said ACLU of Georgia Executive Director Andrea Young. Ellis’ history of public service and his own experience with the criminal justice system make him a particularly good fit, she said.
Voters twice elected Ellis to serve in the top job in DeKalb County, but he was indicted about six months into his second four-year term.
The June 2013 indictment accused Ellis of threatening to withhold county business from companies that didn’t contribute to his campaign. It also alleged that Ellis instructed the county’s director of purchasing and contracting to prevent certain companies from getting business because they didn’t respond to his solicitations and didn’t contribute to his campaign.
Gov. Nathan Deal suspended Ellis while the charges were pending.
Ellis maintained his innocence, saying he made phone calls but didn’t threaten anyone or take action against vendors’ contracts. He said his prosecution was politically motivated.
His first trial in the fall of 2014 ended in a mistrial. At a second trial in June 2015, jurors convicted him on one count of attempt to commit theft by extortion and three counts of perjury.
He was given a five-year sentence, with 18 months to serve in prison and the remainder on probation.
The Georgia Supreme Court in November 2016 reversed his convictions, but he’d already served eight months in prison before being released early in March 2016.
The unanimous high court opinion said the evidence presented to the jury was sufficient to convict Ellis, but it reversed his convictions because of errors during his trial that denied him a fair trial.
The trial court erred by allowing a special purpose grand juror to testify and by prohibiting the defense from presenting evidence of Ellis’ interactions with vendors not named in the indictment who could have testified in his favor, the Supreme Court opinion said.
Ellis returned to office in December 2016 to serve out the final days of his term. The county agreed to pay him $222,556 in back pay and about $755,560 in reimbursed legal fees, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported .
Sherry Boston, who was elected DeKalb County district attorney in November 2016, decided not to retry the case and signed an order in February dismissing the charges.
The experience of his own prosecution will inform his work at the ACLU and also makes it easier to connect with others who have gone through the criminal justice system, he said in an interview Monday at the organization’s office.
“It’s amazing how people open up when they know that you’ve had an experience,” he said.
Georgia’s rates of incarceration and probation are among the highest in the nation and Ellis said he wants to work toward reducing those numbers by half.
“I’ve seen firsthand how it impacts not just the individuals who are incarcerated but their families and communities as well,” he said.
Lengthy probation terms also serve to prolong punishment by depriving people of some basic liberties and making it more difficult for them to get a job and reintegrate into society, he said.
“Other debts end when they’re paid. Collection stops at some point,” he said. “But here in the area of criminal justice it tends to go on long beyond when the debt has been paid and that’s wrong.”