Ethics chief claims Deal aides pressured her, threatened agency

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Ethics chief claims Deal aides pressured her, threatened agency

ETHICS COMMISSION TIMELINE

2010

Nov. 2: Republican Nathan Deal is elected governor.

2011

January-May: The top two staff members of the state ethics commission, executive director Stacey Kalberman and her deputy, Sherilyn Streicker, open an investigation into the Deal campaign. They meet with federal prosecutors and the FBI concerning their inquiry. The two draw up subpoenas for Deal and others and prepare to serve them.

June: Kalberman and Streicker are gone from their jobs. Streicker’s job is eliminated. Kalberman’s salary is cut from $120,000 to $85,000, and she resigns. The chairman of the ethics commission, Patrick Millsaps, says he needed to cut costs.

August: Holly LaBerge is hired as the commission’s new director.

2012

June: Kalberman and Streicker file separate whistleblower lawsuits against the state.

July 23: The state ethics commission clears Deal of major ethics violations while finding he made “technical defects” in a series of personal financial and campaign finance reports. Deal agrees to pay fees totaling $3,350.

Sept. 1: The AJC reports that Kalberman and Streicker held several meetings with federal public corruption authorities to discuss the ethics commission’s investigation into Deal. The U.S. Attorney’s Office would not confirm nor deny that there had been a federal investigation into Deal. Referring to the meetings, Deal lawyer Randy Evans said “there was never anything to it.”

2013

September: The AJC reports that two staff members of the state ethics commission accused LaBerge of improperly intervening in the investigation of Deal. Staff attorney Elisabeth Murray-Obertein and information technology specialist John Hair made the accusations in sworn testimony taken as part of Kalberman’s and Streicker’s whistleblower suits. Hair said LaBerge ordered him to destroy documents in the Deal file. Murray-Obertein said LaBerge bragged that Deal “owed” her for making his legal troubles go away. LaBerge denied those accusations in her own testimony. Deal also denied any wrongdoing.

Oct. 10: The AJC reports that the FBI had interviewed Murray-Obertein.

Oct. 22: The state ethics commission votes to have the state auditor investigate the beleaguered agency.

Dec. 11: Federal investigators issue subpoenas to at least five current and former ethics commission staff members seeking documents to present to a grand jury.

Dec. 19: The ethics commission votes unanimously to hire veteran lawyer Robert Constantine to oversee operations from January to May.

2014

Jan. 6: Relying on personnel files obtained through an open records request, the AJC reports that Constantine was fired in August 2013 as a judge on the state Board of Workers’ Compensation for “failure to meet performance expectations.”

February: Deal and two top aides are subpoenaed by Streicker and could testify in her lawsuit. The ethics commission cuts ties to Constantine, voting to conclude his services while agreeing to pay the full $16,000 of his original agreement.

March: The ethics commission faces a third whistleblower suit —- this one filed by Hair, the agency’s former IT specialist. Hair claims he was fired after refusing orders from LaBerge to alter or remove documents related to the Deal investigation.

April 4: A Fulton County jury awards $700,000 to Kalberman in her suit claiming she was forced out as executive director of the commission for investigating Deal’s campaign too vigorously.

April 7: Deal proposes an overhaul of the ethics commission, calling for 12 members who would be appointed by the executive, legislative and judicial branches.

May 21: The final amount in Kalberman’s case is set at $1.15 million, with Kalberman receiving $725,111.79 and the law firm Thrasher Liss & Smith being paid $424,881.21. The state Department of Administrative Services will pay the costs through its self-funded insurance program.

June 13: The state agrees to settle the remaining cases against the ethics commission and to pay Streicker $1 million, Hair $410,000 and Murray-Obertein $477,500.

Monday: The AJC obtains a memo in which LaBerge alleges that aides for Deal contacted her in July 2012 and pressured her to settle the ethics commission case against the governor. Days later, the commission cleared Deal of the major violations, and he agreed to pay the fee for technical defects in his reports.

Digging deeper

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution began following the infighting, funding lapses and legal challenges plaguing the state’s ethics commission before the departure of chief Stacey Kalberman in June 2011 by reviewing documents and conducting interviews with staff.

Digging deeper

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution began following the infighting, funding lapses and legal challenges plaguing the state’s ethics commission before the departure of chief Stacey Kalberman in June 2011 by reviewing documents and conducting interviews with staff.

Digging deeper

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution began following the infighting, funding lapses and legal challenges plaguing the state’s ethics commission before the departure of chief Stacey Kalberman in June 2011 by reviewing documents and conducting interviews with staff.

Digging deeper

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution began following the infighting, funding lapses and legal challenges plaguing the state’s ethics commission before the departure of chief Stacey Kalberman in June 2011 by reviewing documents and conducting interviews with staff.

The head of the state ethics commission said she was threatened and pressured by Gov. Nathan Deal’s office in 2012 to “make the complaints” against the governor “go away,” according to a memo obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

While on vacation in July 2012, state ethics commission director Holly LaBerge says she received a call from Ryan Teague, Deal’s chief counsel, and texts from chief of staff Chris Riley, according to the memo released by Attorney General Sam Olens’ office in response to an Open Records Act request.

LaBerge claims Teague said, “It was not in the agency’s best interest for these cases to go to a hearing … nor was it in their best political interest either.”

LaBerge includes what she said are text messages from Riley.

“So since you are at the beach, with your feet in the sand and probably something cold to drink. Does this mean we can resolve all DFG (Deal for Governor) issues by Monday? :)” Riley allegedly texted LaBerge.

Days later, the commission voted during a public hearing to dismiss the major complaints against Deal, who agreed to pay $3,350 in fees for technical defects to his campaign disclosures. The complaints included claims Deal improperly paid for use of a private aircraft for campaign travel and questioned his use of campaign funds to pay legal fees during his 2010 campaign.

LaBerge’s allegations in the memo represent the first time she has claimed top aides to Deal personally pressured her to quietly settle the cases against the governor and to avoid a public hearing. Former commission Chairman Kevin Abernethy confirmed Monday that he asked LaBerge to draft the memo after she said she was contacted by Teague.

“I told her you need to memorialize this in the event it ever resurfaces so we have an accurate record of what occurred,” Abernethy said.

Olens’ office, however, said LaBerge did not give it the memo until more than a year later.

Deal on Monday said there was no pressure from his office. “I know of no communications along those lines,” Deal said in a brief interview. “Like I say, I haven’t seen anything that would evidence that.”

Attempts to reach Teague and Riley for comment were unsuccessful. But Deal’s campaign attorney, Randy Evans, who represented the governor before the commission, formally known as the Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, said there is nothing unusual about aides contacting LaBerge.

Evans likened LaBerge to a district attorney. It’s normal for the defense to reach out to prosecutors to seek a settlement.

“As part of the legal team, you try every way possible to convince the prosecutor to let go of the case and to recognize you’re going to lose,” Evans said.

Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said the memo proves that Deal was granted no favors, that LaBerge fought back against efforts to settle the case.

“Contrary to the suggestions otherwise, there was no free ride,” Robinson said.

Meanwhile, the AJC has learned that both the FBI and the state auditor have been given copies of the memo. The auditor and the state Inspector General are each investigating the commission. The AJC reported in 2013 that the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office subpoenaed records from current and former commission employees.

LaBerge referred questions to her attorney, Lee Parks. Parks said he could not comment Monday. But in a letter to the commission on Friday, a copy of which was obtained by the AJC, Parks said LaBerge intends to take a “public stand against the fraud waste and abuse that has occurred” in connection with a series of lawsuits against the commission.

Parks said LaBerge decided to give an interview to Atlanta’s WAGA television station to tell her side of the story.

“My reputation has been destroyed,” LaBerge told Fox 5’s Dale Russell. “I am toxic.”

LaBerge also said she was “mad that the governor’s legal counsel thought he could call me and threaten me and threaten my agency.”

Parks makes clear in the letter that LaBerge is seeking protections under the state whisteblower act.

Parks also claims that Olens’ office instructed LaBerge not to mention the memo during testimony in a series of whisteblower lawsuits filed by former commission employees. Olens’ spokeswoman, Lauren Kane, said no one in the attorney general’s office told anyone to do anything improper.

“Any allegation that any employee of this office has advised or instructed anyone to testify untruthfully in any way is categorically false,” Kane said.

The state has agreed to pay nearly $3 million to settle three lawsuits, and a threatened fourth, brought by former commission employees who claim they were fired or forced from office over the Deal investigation or its aftermath.

Parks, in his letter, said LaBerge has been “isolated in her duties at the commission and she appears to (sic) the sole target of an unorthodox performance audit of the commission that is focused on the Deal complaints.”

LaBerge’s memo about the calls and texts from Deal’s staff was never sent to the plaintiffs’ lawyers during the discovery phase of the cases. Kane said the plaintiffs’ requests for records did not cover LaBerge’s memo. Olens’ office said it did not receive the memo until late 2013.

The commission by 2012 had for several years been without the power to create its own regulations and to interpret the law, a power lawmakers later gave back. Teague, according to LaBerge’s memo, said the agency might not get its power back if the Deal case wasn’t settled without a public hearing.

William Perry, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause, has followed the Deal ethics case for years, and he has advocated for greater transparency in the commission’s work. Perry said LaBerge’s memo raises many questions.

“The most troubling allegation is that a senior member of the governor’s staff possibly blackmailed the head of an agency by threatening to stop potential legislation because of the outcome of an investigation,” Perry said.

Former commission director Stacey Kalberman and her top deputy, Sherilyn Streicker, were investigating the complaints against Deal’s campaign when they drafted subpoenas for records in 2011. Weeks after presenting the drafts to commissioners, Kalberman was told her salary was being cut deeply and Streicker’s job was being eliminated. Kalberman later agreed to resign.

Both later filed lawsuits. LaBerge took over in September 2011. During depositions for Kalberman’s and Streicker’s cases, commission employees — staff attorney Elisabeth Murray-Obertein and media specialist John Hair — claimed LaBerge bragged that she made Deal’s problems “go away” and said the governor owed her. LaBerge denied saying that, and Deal has repeatedly said he doesn’t know LaBerge, much less owe her.

Both Murray-Obertein and Hair were later fired; Murray-Obertein after a Capitol police officer reported she smelled of alcohol at work. Hair later sued the state, and he claims he was fired after LaBerge ordered him to destroy or alter records related to the Deal case and to Kalberman’s lawsuit. Murray-Obertein’s lawyers had told the state she intended to sue.

In the wake of the settlements of those cases, Deal and others called for major changes to the commission’s structure. Deal said he will propose legislation next year to increase the members of the commission and to include representatives of the executive, legislative and judicial branches. The Judiciary does not have appointments to the board now.

Staff writers Greg Bluestein and Nicholas Fouriezos and Channel 2 Action News reporter Lori Geary contributed to this article.

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