Memo sheds light on Governor ethics investigation

Ethics chief claims Deal aides pressured her, threatened agency

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.

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