El­lis al­leges black­mail; dis­trict at­tor­ney says no ev­i­dence

The Covington News - - FRONT PAGE - BY BRYAN FAZIO bfazio@cov­news.com

As cit­i­zens stepped up to the mi­cro­phone to ex­press their con­cerns about a pro­posed mosque com­ing to New­ton County, sev­eral asked the New­ton County Board of Com­mis­sion­ers how 135 acres could have been sold to a non-profit want­ing to build a mosque, ceme­tery, school and more on Ge­or­gia High­way 162 and County Line Road.

De­spite the land be­ing sold by a pri­vate owner and the pro­posed use meet­ing all zon­ing re­quire­ments by the county, and not need­ing an or­di­nance change to be ap­proved, New­ton County Chair Keith El­lis felt that he was di­rectly be­ing asked why he didn’t know more.

Tues­day, a day af­ter the com­mis­sion­ers held a pub­lic hear­ing, at­tended by hun­dreds, at the New­ton County His­toric Court­house, El­lis sub­mit­ted a let­ter to The Cov­ing­ton News claim­ing that he had been kept out of the loop on county busi­ness, since what he felt was an at­tempt to black­mail him in Jan­uary.

El­lis’s “Open Let­ter to the Peo­ple of New­ton County” ac­cused two com­mis­sion­ers of black­mail. How­ever, dis­trict at­tor­ney Layla Zon said she told El­lis months ago there was no ev­i­dence of crim­i­nal black­mail charges, and both com­mis­sion­ers have de­nied the ac­cu­sa­tion.

Zon said she told El­lis in Jan­uary that she did not be­lieve there was enough ev­i­dence of black­mail, and the FBI, in late May or early June re­ported re­sults that its in­ves­ti­ga­tion found no ev­i­dence of black­mail or ex­tor­tion.

This week, El­lis wrote in his let­ter that com­mis­sion­ers Lanier Sims and Levi Mad­dox met with him on Jan. 7 and pre­sented him with three choices to “avoid ex­po­sure” of a tape that al­legedly was a record­ing of El­lis dis­cussing a bribe from a land­fill op­er­a­tor.

Those three choices spelled out in El­lis’s state­ment were: Take a med­i­cal leave of ab­sence, with full pay, with no op­po­si­tion from com­mis­sion­ers. Vol­un­tar­ily and im­me­di­ately re­lin­quish pub­lic works com­pletely to the county man­ager for the length of the term. Re­sign, ef­fec­tive im­me­di­ately. El­lis brought that in­for­ma­tion to New­ton County Sher­iff Ezell Brown, who said he turned it over to the FBI of­fice in At­lanta in Jan­uary.

“The FBI in­formed that they would in­ves­ti­gate two things: 1) whether there was any so­lic­i­ta­tion of a bribe by El­lis in con­nec­tion with [Tee] Stri­b­ling (of Green­hill P3) and 2) whether the county com­mis­sion­ers had ex­torted or black­mailed him,” said Zon in a state­ment to The News. “The agent ad­vised they would keep us posted on their find­ings. In late May/ early June, the FBI con­firmed with the Dis­trict At­tor­ney’s of­fice that they found no ev­i­dence of crim­i­nal ac­tion by El­lis or the other com­mis­sion­ers in ask­ing El­lis to con­sent to a re­duc­tion in his power or step down.”

Zon said her of­fice didn’t have the al­leged record­ing, and El­lis and sev­eral com­mis­sion­ers said they have never seen or heard of a tape.

As far as El­lis be­ing asked to ei­ther leave of­fice or give up power in Jan­uary, two com­mis­sion­ers have con­firmed they knew such a dis­cus­sion took place.

“Le­vie Mad­dox did in fact talk to me about the three op­tions men­tioned,” Dis­trict 1 Com­mis­sioner John Dou­glas said.

Dis­trict 3 Com­mis­sioner Nancy Schulz also ac­knowl­edged know­ing of a meet­ing, but said that tur­moil in county lead­er­ship had reached a dan­ger­ous high in Jan­uary. Schulz said “a lot of con­flict was ex­as­per­ated by the chair,” and to re­lieve some of that con­flict El­lis was ap­proached.

“As I re­call, Sims and Mad­dox felt very strongly there needed to be some changes,” Schulz said. “My rec­ol­lec­tion was they were go­ing to of­fer an op­por­tu­nity.”

Schulz said that many of the con­cerns about how El­lis was manag­ing the county stemmed from his treat­ment of em­ploy­ees, such as for­mer county engi­neer Aaron Wadley. Wadley an­nounced his res­ig­na­tion on Jan. 4, stat­ing in a Jan­uary story in The News that El­lis had been “try­ing to dis­credit staff and dam­age my name and that of your own solid waste engi­neer.”

In a sym­bolic ges­ture, the board of com­mis­sion­ers gave El­lis a vote of “no con­fi­dence” at a spe­cial called meet­ing Jan. 7 with a 4-0 vote. Dis­trict 4 Com­mis­sioner J.C. Hen­der­son ab­stained from the vote.

The terms of both Mad­dox and El­lis ex­pire at year’s end.

The board’s ten­sion comes at a cru­cial time for the county gov­ern­ment, as, among other items com­mis­sion­ers are in ne­go­ti­a­tions with the city over con­trol of its two com­mu­nity cen­ters and the county is deal­ing with the on­go­ing con­tro­versy over solid waste dis­posal.


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