Gov. Nathan Deal's camp has been trying to distance itself from the problems facing the ethics commission for months. The jury's verdict on Friday makes it a lot harder to do that.
Deal's political opponents pounced minutes after the jury sided with Stacey Kalberman, the former head of Georgia's ethics agency. Kalberman claimed that she was forced from office because she aggressively investigated complaints stemming from Deal's 2010 campaign.
First came word from former Dalton Mayor David Pennington:
"Nathan Deal's abuses of power, ethics flaws, and strong arm, good old boy politics no longer have a place in our state. If we, Republicans, actually want to defeat Jason Carter this November, we must ensure an ethical conservative is on the top of the ticket. I am the proven Conservative who can defeat Carter."
Then Democrat Jason Carter chimed in with a statement and later a fundraising appeal:
"This whistle-blower trial opened a new window into the unethical culture of Gov. Deal's administration," Carter said. "Between this trial, the ongoing federal grand jury inquiry, and the new revelations that the governor used his official taxpayer-paid staff to advance his private business dealings, it is clear that this governor doesn't think that the rules apply to him.
Superintendent John Barge goes the farthest.
"The Governor is in the middle of all this mess. This is yet another example of the reason why Georgia ranks dead last in the nation in public integrity. It is time for the Governor to step aside, settle for one term, and let us get Georgia back on track."
We grabbed Deal on the subject earlier this morning, and he mostly dodged questions about the pending verdict by saying he wasn't following the case closely.
“I think that the judicial system handles issues like this very well, that’s what we have the courts for,” adding that he doesn’t think it would have a political impact. “They try to drag me into it, I have no involvement whatsoever.”
Deal spokesman Brian Robinson offered a bit more after the verdict was announced:
Today's verdict involved an internal dispute between former employees and former commissioners of the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, which is a body that operates independently of elected officials. There's a reason no member of the governor's staff was called to testify: because there's no connection to this office.
After the most exhaustive review of such a case in Georgia history, commissioners last year ruled that the charges levied against Deal for Governor lacked merit. Those decisions are rendered by the commission members, not commission staff, after exhaustive study. As such, who the commission employed as staff had no relevance to the Deal for Governor case.
On Robinson's point about no Deal staffers being called to testify, it's not for lack of trying. Deal was subpoenaed to take the witness stand, but prosecutors objected and a judge quashed it.
Expect to hear more - plenty more - from Deal's rivals about this ethics trial in the months to come. Two other similar lawsuits from former ethics officials mean the story likely won't soon fade. Democrat Greg Hecht is calling on his rival, Republican Attorney General Sam Olens, to appoint an independent counsel to probe the agency. And then there's the question of where the $700,000 will come from.
Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson floated this idea:
"Not only should the current chair of the ethics commission step down, but Governor Deal should pay the $700,000 jury award to Stacey Kalberman from his campaign account."