A harsh rebuke of Jason Carter's plea for ethics probe

Democrat Jason Carter's plea for an independent investigator to probe how the state's ethics commission handled complaints involving Gov. Nathan Deal ran into a buzz-saw today.

Attorney General Sam Olens didn't mince words in a scathing response. He said under Georgia law there is "no such thing" as an independent special assistant attorney general who can be tapped to investigate issues as a third party. Rather, those outside attorneys fall squarely under his office's oversight.

Besides, Olens said, two investigations into the ethics commission are already underway. The state auditor is reviewing the agency's issues, and federal investigators are "presumably" probing the commission as well.

"It would be counterproductive to interject the Department of Law into those pending investigations, particularly where the office has an ongoing statutory responsibility to provide legal representation to the Commission," Olens wrote.

He concluded with this:

"While I have considered your letter in good faith, if you have a request in the future I would appreciate the courtesy of receiving it before you discuss it in the press, and with time to review it before it is attached to partisan fundraising appeals. This office takes its constitutional and statutory responsibilities very seriously and has no interest in being used for political purposes."

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In Carter's request, he asked for a third-party investigation to "ensure that there is no appearance of impropriety." Said the letter:

"Given the publicly available information, the allegations against Gov. Deal and his 2010 campaign were serious and far-reaching. They deserve a full investigation, which they have not yet received. A Special Assistant Attorney General will have the independence, authority and credibility needed to fully investigate these matters without appearance of bias or threat of political interference."

It's not unusual for the state to hire special assistant attorney generals, who are private attorneys hired by the state for specific investigations or cases. The AJC reported in August that Georgia has spent more than $100 million over the past three years on private lawyers hired by the AG. Occasionally, they're hired for politically sensitive investigations, like when Gov. Sonny Perdue hired ex-prosecutors to look into cheating scandals.

Carter's campaign said in a statement it was disappointed by Olens' response and argued that the law makes it "crystal clear" that Olens had the power to conduct a third-party investigation.

“While Mr. Olens is correct to acknowledge there is an ongoing federal investigation of the Deal cover-up, Georgia taxpayers should not have to rely on the FBI to hold their elected leaders accountable,” Carter spokesman Bryan Thomas said.

Quick backstory on the issue: The ethics complaints that Carter wants investigated are at the heart of a string of whistleblower lawsuits filed by former ethics agency employees who claim they were forced out or punished for too enthusiastically pursuing. They involve allegations of misused campaign money stemming from Deal's 2010 campaign.

Carter's campaign has made an ethics overhaul a central issue, and argued in a letter this week that there was a compelling need to reopen the investigation. Deal's campaign said the complaints have been thoroughly vetted. And Deal accused Carter of trying to score political points.

"It’s one of the lowest forms of politics,” said Deal.