ETHICS WATCH

Ethics chief lost last job

Former workers’ comp judge divulged firing.

By Shannon McCaffrey, Greg Bluestein and Aaron Gould Sheinin Staff writers

The veteran lawyer tapped in December to restore confidence in Georgia’s beleaguered ethics commission was fired four months earlier from his job as a state administrative law judge for “failure to meet performance expectations,” according to records obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Robert Constantine was removed in August from a $100,000-a-year post with the state Board of Workers’ Compensation, personnel records show. Two commission members told the AJC on Monday that they knew Constantine

had been dismissed from the judgeship but said they remained confident in his leadership.

“He’s the right person to try and help straighten out the ethics commission,” Commissioner Lawton Jordan said.

Not everyone agreed. Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, one of the leading advocates for strengthening the state’s ethics laws and giving the commission the tools it needs, called Constantine’s firing “cause for concern.”

“It’s something I’d want to know more about, about the circumstances,” McKoon said. “I think alarmed is a fair description.”

Constantine’s past job difficulties mark the latest chapter in an ongoing saga that has engulfed the state panel charged with policing campaign finances and lobbyist conduct. On the heels of a bitter, and very public, feud among top state ethics employees, federal investigators stepped in last month and served at least five current and former commission staffers with subpoenas. They are seeking documents related to a probe of campaign finance allegations against Gov. Nathan Deal stemming from the 2010 race for governor. The state auditor is also investigating the commission.

Last month, the five-member ethics commission unanimously tapped Constantine to oversee the agency, giving him broad authority to referee disputes and probe its effectiveness. The 66-yearold was touted as a respected insider with decades of experience as a lobbyist and attorney, most of it in the insurance industry. He began work Monday.

In a phone interview, Constantine declined to get into specifics of his departure as a workers’ comp judge.

“I don’t think I was fired for a lack of ability. I think I was fired for other reasons,” he told the AJC. “But I’m not going to discuss that.”

Jordan, the lone Democrat on the panel, told the AJC that Constantine was upfront about the dismissal when Jordan and board Chairman Kevin Abernethy interviewed him for the ethics job, a four-month position paying $4,000 a month.

“We discussed it (the firing) with him, we went over it with him, we asked questions about it,” Jordan said. “After hearing him describe it, Chairman Abernethy and I still thought 100 percent he was the best candidate for this job.”

Jordan added, “I still feel that way.”

Commission Vice Chairwoman Hillary Stringfellow seconded that support.

“I remain committed to Mr. Constantine serving the commission and look forward to his efforts and reports,” she said in a statement.

Efforts to reach Abernethy were unsuccessful Monday.

During the December meeting when Constantine was hired, Abernethy said Constantine had volunteered his services to the commission.

Records show Deal appointed Constantine to the Department of Labor’s review board in March 2011 after he was vetted by the governor’s attorneys. He stepped down a few months later after he was tapped for the workers’ comp job.

In his May 2011 resignation letter, Constantine thanked Deal for his confidence. “I trust that all is well with you and, as always, if I can ever be of assistance to you and your staff, please do not hesitate to call on me,” Constantine wrote.

The state Board of Workers’ Compensation handles claims from Georgians who report being injured on the job. Administrative law judges determine whether employees are entitled to back wages, reimbursement for medical bills and other benefits. The board is funded through assessments to insurance companies.

The personnel file obtained by the AJC through an open records request contained no details about why he was dismissed. Officials at the board did not return phone calls and emails seeking comment Monday.

But in his application for employment as a workers’ comp judge, Constantine checked “yes” when asked whether he had been dismissed previously from another job in state government. No specifics were provided and he did not comment. Constantine served as chief deputy insurance commissioner for the state in the 1970s.

The ethics commission’s troubles have been making headlines since two former staff members alleged they were forced out in 2011 for aggressively investigating Deal. Stacey Kalberman and Sherilyn Streicker have filed whistle-blower lawsuits against the state.

Under the tenure of Holly LaBerge, hired to replace Kalberman as executive secretary, the commission voted in 2012 to dismiss the most serious allegations against Deal and ordered him to pay $3,350 for technical violations in his campaign and personal financial disclosures.

The commission’s top lawyer, Elisabeth Murray-Obertein, said in a sworn statement that LaBerge bragged that Deal “owed” her for making the tougher charges go away. A former IT executive, John Hair, also told the AJC that LaBerge ordered him to destroy documents in the Deal file. LaBerge has denied both allegations.

Those allegations seem to have captured the attention of federal investigators. Hair, Kalberman, LaBerge, Murray-Obertein and Streicker received subpoenas and were set to hand over documents to a grand jury next week.

Amid the turmoil, Constantine was brought on to “right the ship.”

At least one watchdog said he was encouraged by Constantine’s openness to address concerns.

“We chatted about getting together to share our observations of problems with the ethics commission, and I took it as a good sign that he was willing to meet with us,” said Jim Kulstad, a lobbyist for the watchdog group Common Cause Georgia.

Constantine said his work history shouldn’t affect his ability to steady the troubled commission.

“I think I have the ability to do this job,” he said.

Staff writers Shannon McCaffrey can be reached at smcaffrey@ajc.com; Greg Bluestein, gbluestein@ajc.com; and Aaron Gould Sheinin, aaron.gouldsheinin@ajc.com.