AJC WATCHDOG

Ethics investigation urged

State panel calls for outside inquiry into lawsuits in wake of Deal fallout.

By Aaron Gould Sheinin aaron.gouldsheinin@ajc.com

The state ethics commission on Monday called for an independent investigation in response to a pair of lawsuits pending against the commission as well as its deepening personnel problems.

The commission wants Attorney General Sam Olens to appoint a special outside attorney to lead the investigation. Olens’ spokeswoman said he has yet to receive a formal request for outside counsel and could not comment. Several of Olens’ top lawyers participated in Monday’s meeting.

Commissioners did not say which lawsuits and personnel matters prompted their desire for an outside investigation. The commission, however, faces a pair of whistle-blower lawsuits by former director Stacey Kalberman and her former top deputy, Sherilyn Streicker. Both claim they were forced out for pressing an investigation into Gov. Nathan Deal’s 2010 campaign.

Deal, who was accused of misusing campaign cash and of accepting contributions over the legal limit, was cleared of major charges in 2012 and ordered to pay $3,350 in administrative fees for “technical defects.”

The commission’s staff attorney had recommended a fine of $70,000.

Olens represents the ethics commission in the suits filed by Kalberman and Streicker. The commission wants Olens to appoint what’s called a special assistant attorney general; SAAGs are private attorneys hired by the state for specific investigations or cases.

The commission met Monday in an emergency session via conference call. Commission Chairman Kevin Abernethy did not return requests for comment.

“An independent counsel reviewing the most recent accusations is the right way to begin restoring confidence in all ethics commission actions,” Commissioner Heath Garrett told the AJC.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in September that current and former commission employees have accused commission director Holly LaBerge of interfering with the Deal investigation, ordering documents involved in the investigation removed from the file and bragging about how Deal “owes” her for making the case go away. The AJC also reported that it had reviewed legal documents that showed two Republican members of the commission worked with the governor’s office to replace Kalberman and that Deal’s office had contacted LaBerge about the position of executive director a month before there was an opening.

Deal and his attorney do not dispute that the governor’s aides met with LaBerge before she was hired. They characterize that as part of routine discussions for new hires.

The governor pushed back sharply against the allegation that he received special treatment in the handling of his case and says he does not owe LaBerge anything.

LaBerge, in sworn testimony, has denied the allegations. Staff attorney Elisabeth Murray-Obertein, meanwhile, has filed two human resources complaints against La-Berge and accused her of practicing law without a license.

William Perry, executive director of the watchdog group Common Cause Georgia, said the commission has taken a positive step in seeking fresh eyes.

“We are encouraged there will be an independent investigation because that is what our organization has called for,” Perry said, “but it also brings up a lot of questions we look forward to being answered, such as who will appoint the special investigator, who will they report to, how the process will work.”

It is not unusual for the state to contract for a special assistant attorney general. The AJC reported in August that Georgia has spent more than $100 million over the past three years on private lawyers hired by the attorney general. In some cases, agencies have gone around the attorney general and hired their own outside counsel.

In 2011, the Department of Community Health faced an appeal deadline over a longstanding $90 million dispute over disallowed Medicaid payments to the state. DCH hired Washington attorney Caroline Brown without seeking the approval of the attorney general.

There have also been instances of private lawyers being hired for politically sensitive investigations. Then-Gov. Sonny Perdue hired former prosecutors to investigate alleged cheating on standardized tests in Atlanta Public Schools and in Dougherty County.

Murray-Obertein said in this case it is odd that Olens is representing the commission in the lawsuits. “So I am a little curious that he would be the person appointing” the investigator, she said.

The commission’s progress in general has come into question as commissioners also voted to cancel the panel’s October meeting in light of its request for an independent probe.

The commission, Murray-Obertein said, “is a mess, with such a small staff and people spending so much time trying to get rid of employees.”

There has been only one full commission meeting this year, in April, in addition to two teleconference meetings where members discussed the lawsuits in private.

At its October meeting, the commission was to decide whether to bar state lobbyists who owe late fees from re-registering and hear four cases. None of that will happen now.

“It really seems to me it’s a sinking ship,” Murray-Obertein said.

Meanwhile, huge changes to state ethics laws loom in January, thanks to legislation adopted earlier this year. With the focus on the lawsuits, internal squabbling, and now an outside investigation, much of that work has suffered.

“It’s safe to say that professional lobbyists … need a great deal of clarification with regard to the renewal process, clarification on the implementation of the new ethics law regarding restrictions on lobbyist spending,” said veteran lobbyist Jet Toney, president of the Georgia Professional Lobbyist Association. “Elected officials deserve to know the commission’s interpretations of the law.”

The larger issue, Common Cause’s Perry said, is the efficacy of the commission itself.

“From a standpoint of public trust, a commission that never meets doesn’t get much trust from the public when there is so much of a backlog,” he said. “One question is, does (investigation) shut down an agency?”

Staff writer James Salzer contributed to this article.