Taxpayers on the hook for mishandled ethics probe of Gov. Deal

Published 5:53 pm Friday, July 25, 2014

In 1997, Gov. Zell Miller appointed me to fill a vacant seat on the five-member State Ethics Commission and then reappointed me to a full term where I served until 2002. It was a rewarding experience and I am proud of the good things we accomplished at the commission.

Now, fast forward to its successor, the Georgia Government Transparency and (inhale) Campaign Finance Committee. What a disaster.

The way this dysfunctional agency has handled — or mishandled — the investigation into Gov. Nathan Deal’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign has risen to the absurd. The result has been to turn a political molehill for Deal into a mountain of trouble that could have a negative impact on the governor’s reelection effort this November.

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The wheels came off the tracks in 2011 when commission director Stacey Kalberman and her top deputy, Sherilyn Streicker, drafted subpoenas for records regarding that case. After doing so, Kalberman was told by the commission that her salary was being cut by 30 percent and Streicker’s job was eliminated. No subpoenas were ever issued.

Kalberman filed a whistleblower suit and a Fulton County jury awarded her $1.3 million. The state decided to settle potential lawsuits with other former staff members. Streicker received a $1 million settlement. One-time commission attorney Elisabeth Murray-Obertein got $477,500 and John Hair, a commission computer specialist settled for $410,000.

That is $3 million you and I as taxpayers will have to ante up. The Deal campaign agreed to pay a $3,350 fine in 2012.  As usual, We the Unwashed got the short end of the stick.

Kalberman’s replacement, Holly LaBerge, was accused of interfering in the Deal campaign probe by ordering documents removed from the investigative file. The dissident employees charged also that LaBerge bragged about her relationship with the governor’s office and reportedly said of Deal, “Now he owes me. I made this go away,” something both LaBerge and the governor’s aides deny.

End of the story? Not quite. This past week, LaBerge declared herself a whistleblower. She released a memorandum she had sent to the attorney general’s office saying that both Ryan Teague, the governor’s attorney, and Chris Riley, Deal’s chief of staff, threatened her with retaliation if the commission didn’t produce a favorable verdict in the case.

She wrote the memo in 2012 on the day of her conversation with Teague but didn’t turn it over to the attorney general’s office until a year later. Why? And why has it just now been made public? And where has AG Sam Olens been? Did someone put Clarabelle the Clown in charge and forget to tell me?

By the way, the governor’s office says nobody was making threats. They were only trying to get some idea of whether the case would be settled before Gov. Deal left for Switzerland in case he had to write a check to cover any fine. Hmm. It seems something got lost in that translation.

I thought back to how our group might have handled this mess. We would likely have told the governor’s office there was no need to call us. We’ll call you. We would have assured Mr. Teague and Mr. Riley and the governor’s campaign mavens we would be sure to let them know just as soon as we had arrived at a decision and in the meantime to suggest the governor try the apfelküchlein while he was in Switzerland. It is delicious.

We studiously asserted our independence from the state politicos, thanks to our tenacious director, Teddy Lee, and a nice but no-nonsense chairman, attorney Mike McRae, of Cedartown. When Roy Barnes was elected governor, his staff decreed that every state agency would file financial disclosure forms. A noble goal, except the State Ethics Commission was not a part of the governor’s administration. We were an independent agency. We said “no.” McRae stuck to his guns under much the same kind of pressure that seems to have flummoxed the current crowd.

We took a number of politicians to the woodshed for campaign violations during my tenure on the commission. The State Ethics Commission was not a beloved bunch but our integrity was never questioned. Not once. The only whistleblowers we experienced were police officers directing traffic outside.

I am proud to have been a part of the State Ethics Commission when it worked as it was supposed to. And I am dismayed at the unfunny joke the Whatever-You-Call-It Commission has become. You should be, too. This sorry episode has already cost you $3 million.