ETHICS WATCH

Governor pushes ethics overhaul

Deal: Watchdog agency has had problems predating his tenure.

By Greg Bluestein gbluestein@ajc.com and Janel Davis jhdavis@ajc.com

ATHENS — Gov. Nathan Deal unveiled a plan Monday to remake the state’s beleaguered ethics commission days after a jury’s verdict brought fresh concerns about the state watchdog agency’s independence.

It was a sharp turn for the governor, who had long sought to distance himself from the ethics agency’s turmoil and leave structural changes up to lawmakers. But Deal, who stressed that the agency’s problems predate his governorship, signaled Monday that he feared the mounting questions about the commission’s fate could threaten his campaign for a second term.

“It has been an ineffective commission for a very long period of time,” Deal said after speaking to a group of

educators in Athens. “Just recently I think we heard they have not disposed of a single case in many, many months, which in my opinion is inexcusable.”

His plan would replace the five-member panel, which is now appointed by the governor and legislative leaders, with a 12-member group tapped by members of the executive, legislative and judicial branches. He also vowed to increase funding for the agency, which has often complained about a lack of resources to probe possible ethics violations.

Deal’s rivals have made an ethics overhaul a mantra in their campaigns. State Schools Superintendent John Barge and former Dalton Mayor David Pennington, Deal’s GOP challengers, claim the governor and his allies have run roughshod over state government. And Democratic state Sen. Jason Carter, his party’s candidate in November, was poised to unveil his own ethics plan today.

Carter spokesman Bryan Thomas said Deal was “scrambling to cover himself in the midst of an election-year political crisis.”

The governor’s proposal comes just days after a jury handed former state ethics commission head Stacey Kalberman a victory in a lawsuit that claimed she was forced out of her job for too vigorously investigating a complaint stemming from Deal’s 2010 run for office. The jury took less than three hours to side with Kalberman and grant her a $700,000 judgment.

Georgia’s ethics commission has struggled for years to meet its legal mandate to review the millions of campaign and lobbying records and investigate violations of the law. Attempts to make internal changes, such as hiring an outside adviser to help oversee the agency, were abandoned after proving embarrassing.

The commission’s leader, Holly LaBerge, announced last month that no work had progressed on any of its 169 open ethics cases in nearly a year. Instead, the commission has been more involved in internal squabbles and intrigue than in being a watchdog for the state.

Whistleblower lawsuits filed by Kalberman and two other former staffers have raised further questions about the commission. One former staffer claimed in sworn testimony that LaBerge bragged that Deal “owed” her for making tough charges go away, while another told the AJC that LaBerge ordered him to destroy documents in Deal’s file.

LaBerge, who did not return calls seeking comment about the governor’s proposal, has denied those allegations. Deal said he has nothing to do with the agency and has sidestepped debate about overhauling it by leaving the matter up to legislators, who declined to take action this session.

Deal said his more “comprehensive” commission would have limited conflicts of interest by barring members from hearing any case involving their branch. He said it wouldn’t infringe on legislative ethics committees or the Judicial Qualifications Commission, both internal watchdogs, because it would be limited to campaign fundraising issues. The changes would require legislation in 2015, and Deal also vowed to propose additional funding, though he wouldn’t specify how much. Democrats have long pushed for a remake of the ethics commission with a budget tied to state revenue and overseen by independent jurists. Deal, for his part, conceded an overhaul is “probably overdue.”

“Throughout its troubled history — dating long before I took this office — confusion, dysfunction and inefficiency have plagued the commission,” Deal said in a statement.

The panel’s current leaders seemed optimistic about Deal’s proposal. Commission Chairman Kevin Abernethy said, “We would be open to reform and legislative fixes to make the commission better.” He added that additional funding for the agency, which has complained it doesn’t have enough resources to vet complaints, would be welcomed.

Watchdog advocates were also eager to hear more details. William Perry of Common Cause Georgia, the good government group, held a news conference Monday urging Deal and his opponents to put ethics at the center of their political campaigns. Perry said the cost of having a weakened ethics commission was made clear in last week’s verdict.

“It’s cost the taxpayers of this state at least $800,000 from one case alone,” he said, citing back pay and other costs that could drive the jury’s award higher. “The governor’s office can lead the way and the legislative leadership can step up and give us a reformed commission so that Georgia isn’t continually the butt of the joke when it comes to ethics reform.”

Staff writer reporter Chris Joyner contributed to this article.