Ethics verdict poses a threat to GOP grip on Georgia

In the 11 days after the adjournment of the Legislature on March 20, Democrat Jason Carter out-raised Gov. Nathan Deal by a ratio of five to one.

The Republican incumbent pulled in $84,000 before the deadline for the latest contribution reporting period. His upstart challenger, a sitting state senator, raised $416,000.

The Deal campaign accused Carter of cheating – by advertising a March 23 fundraiser in New York, which featured his famous grandfather, before lawmakers abandoned Atlanta. State law forbids legislators and all other elected state officials from soliciting campaign contributions while the Legislature is in session.

But here’s the unfortunate reality of the situation: Whether or not the Democratic candidate for governor adhered to the letter of the law doesn’t matter a whit as a practical matter. Not right now, and not in the near future.

The state agency in charge of refereeing these fundraising restrictions – the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission – has melted into a puddle of cash-starved, lawsuit-induced paralysis. Its only lawyer has been sacked, allegedly for drinking on the job. It has no investigators.

The commission, which costs you $1.3 million per annum, hasn’t done any work on 169 open cases in more than a year.

Even if it could overcome these obstacles, the agency – which can still be found on the Internet under its discarded identity, the “State Ethics Commission” — may now lack the moral wherewithal to pass judgment on the activities of Carter, Deal's two primary opponents, or anyone else.

It has only been nine days since a Fulton County jury endorsed the story told by Stacey Kalberman, the ethics commission’s former executive secretary, who said she had been sacked three years ago for pursuing an investigation into Deal’s 2010 election campaign.

Jurors were assisted in their decision-making by Patrick Millsaps, the commission chairman who helped force Kalberman out. He admitted that that the recruitment of her replacement by Deal’s office – before Kalberman knew she was leaving — “doesn’t pass the smell test.”

Then there was the testimony of Kalberman’s replacement, Holly LaBerge, who couldn’t remember who in the governor’s office offered her an $85,000-a-year job. In 1971, I landed a $1.67-an-hour job as a Richway buggy boy in south Fulton County. I can still name the woman who hired me.

Skeptical jurors awarded Kalberman $700,000. Court costs and attorney fees are likely to push the number toward $1 million.

After years of false starts, we now know what’s required to push through serious ethics reform in Georgia. There must be a bona fide threat to a ruling party’s grasp on the state Capitol. That’s what we have now.

Political veterans, myself included, are often jaded when it comes to the impact of scandal on the voting public. But complicated and esoteric issues are just that – until they are not. “The fix was in” is a remarkably short and easily understood bumper sticker.

Deal, who insists he has no connection to the Kalberman case, must still be viewed as a favorite to win re-election, in both his primary and the general election. But given the stakes, Republicans can take no chances.

It’s not just control of the state bureaucracy that’s at risk. Over the last year, certain GOP strategists have worried that the wrong nominee – a Paul Broun, perhaps – could boost Democrat Michelle Nunn’s chances of winning the U.S. Senate. Those same Republicans must now worry whether a wounded Deal – and a strengthened Carter – could have the same effect.

Like many others in the Capitol, both Democrat and Republican, Deal has suspected the ethics commission of being a factory for frivolous complaints filed by campaign operatives during election season. Which it surely can be. (It has also been criticized as a toothless and near useless watchdog.)

But three days after the Fulton County jury’s verdict, the governor announced his first stab at remaking the state ethics commission, by expanding the commission from five to 13 members representing the legislative, executive and judicial arms of government.

The commission is currently controlled by the Capitol’s three power centers. Three appointees belong to the governor, one to the House speaker, and one to Senate leadership.

The governor did not recommend an independent and larger funding source for the commission, but has left that door open. Any new legislation will have to wait until January – after the election. In the meantime, Deal has even more hurdles.

Two more lawsuits are pending. One is from Kalberman’s No. 2, who was also forced out in 2011. Another is from an agency technician, who claims he was asked to delete documents related to the Deal investigation.

The question is whether to bring those cases to trial for a second and third round of unpleasant publicity. A fourth lawsuit, from the aforementioned sacked attorney, is possible.

The state ethics commission will hold a closed-door meeting this week – its first since the verdict — to discuss its messy legal situation. But it won’t be the only party to a decision on how to cut through this Gordian knot.

The state Department of Administrative Services, which answers to the governor and issues all checks, would have to sign off on any out-of-court settlements. Attorney General Sam Olens would have to put his stamp of approval on any deals as well.

Given that Olens is often mentioned as a 2018 candidate for governor, we’re looking at a mess that could have an impact far beyond November.

About the Author

Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.