Ellis alleges blackmail; district attorney says no evidence
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.