Ethics chief clings to job amid chaos

Legal sanction latest disgrace for Holly LaBerge.

In three years as Georgia’s top ethics enforcer, Holly LaBerge has presided over an office that has:

  • Required taxpayers to pay nearly $3 million to settle lawsuits from whistleblowers in her office, many more times what the commission collects in mandatory filing fees from candidates and lobbyists.
  • Accumulated a backlog of 200 ethics cases from around the state.
  • All but ceased investigating complaints for almost a year.

But it took a Fulton County judge to call her “dishonest and non-transparent” for the appointed members of the state ethics commission to put her in real jeopardy.

Hillary Stringfellow, chair of the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, placed LaBerge on administrative leave Friday morning. Later in the day, the commission met in closed session for more than hour but was unable to reach consensus on LaBerge’s future.

The meeting came two days after Superior Court Judge Ural Glanville fined LaBerge personally $10,000 for failing to turn over an incriminating memo in a whistleblower lawsuit filed by her predecessor.

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In the order, which LaBerge vowed to appeal, Glanville declared himself “extremely troubled by the behavior of Defendant LaBerge, who has been dishonest and non-transparent throughout these proceedings.” The bold text — and underline — were emphasis from Glanville, who also fined the office of Attorney General Sam Olens $10,000 for failing to turn over the memo.

The public rebuke forced the commission’s hand by castigating LaBerge for the two functions most central to the ethics commission’s mission — ethics and transparency.

In truth, however, LaBerge had already become an ineffective figurehead. A revolving door of disgruntled staff quit or had been fired under her leadership. The good government group Common Cause Georgia called for her resignation or firing. Last month, the appointed members of her own commission excluded her from sensitive deliberations.

LaBerge’s turbulent tenure underscores a “systematic problem with the way ethics are handled in this state,” said William Perry, Common Cause Georgia’s executive director.

The ethics commission is supposed to investigate campaign finance and lobbying expenditure complaints. For years prior to LaBerge’s arrival the commission struggled with a small budget and uneven staffing to move investigations along. But the situation got much worse under LaBerge.

In fiscal 2011, which ended right before LaBerge was hired, the commission reviewed 200 cases, closing 52, according to data from the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget. The following year, the commission closed 17 cases.

In 2013, zero.

Over the same time period, which coincided with austerity cuts for teachers and other state workers, LaBerge received not one but two raises, boosting her pay from $85,000 to $100,000.

LaBerge will continue to draw her state salary while on leave.

A ‘social cost’

This past March, LaBerge announced that no work at all had been done on 169 open cases in nearly a year. Currently, there are more than 200 open cases, according to a document obtained by the AJC through an open records request.

Among those stalled complaints is one filed March 20, 2013, by Decatur resident Ellen Nash against Edmond Richardson, a failed Democratic candidate for the DeKalb County Board of Commissioners, over discrepancies in Richardson’s 2012 campaign contribution reports. Richardson responded promptly with his explanation of the errors and how he corrected them, but Nash said she never has heard anything else from the state ethics commission.

Nash said she still would file a complaint if she saw something wrong in another campaign, but she said she would not expect the commission to do anything about it.

“I guess I’m feeling fairly jaded about political ethics at the state and local level,” she said.

That kind of lowering of expectations is the real “social cost” of the continued problems at the state ethics commission, said Savannah State University political science professor Robert Smith.

“I think it matters in the sense that you have citizens that frankly lose their trust in the mechanisms of government to be able to deliver transparency and even-handedness,” he said. “There clearly are costs associated with that.”

In a rare meeting of the commission last month, LaBerge said the hiring of two new attorneys has allowed work to begin on more than 60 of the backlogged cases and three cases have been administratively dismissed. The commission scheduled a meeting for Sept. 30 when LaBerge promised to have cases to present for commission action.

LaBerge does have supporters, mostly among those people the commission is charged with regulating — state lawmakers and lobbyists.

House Ethics Committee Chairman Joe Wilkinson, R-Sandy Springs, has been among her most loyal backers, although he declined comment for this story. Longtime lobbyist Jet Toney said LaBerge has “performed the best she can given a wide range of factors which have made the job difficult.”

Toney said LaBerge gives clear advice to everyday problems lobbyists have trying to file their expense reports. That’s more than he can say for her predecessor, Stacey Kalberman.

“I could not say anything positive about her predecessor,” he said. “We, the regulated community, were very distrustful of the previous director as far as her guidance.”

Likewise, Rep. Rich Golick, R-Smyrna, said the commission prior to LaBerge had a reputation for broadly interpreting ethics laws in ways with which lawmakers did not agree. Golick said that was one reason why the commission was stripped of its rule-making authority. Returning that power to the commission is a signal of greater confidence, he said.

‘This is my fault how?’

If LaBerge is fired, she will not go quietly. She has lashed out at critics and appears to be preparing for a lawsuit against the commission.

In emails to the AJC prior to being placed on leave, LaBerge said she has been victimized by an unsupportive board, incompetent staffers, a Legislature that refuses to properly fund the office and a mean-spirited press that fails to acknowledge her accomplishments while focusing on failures — none of which are her fault.

For example, state law requires the commission to determine whether campaign finance and lobbyist reports are accurate, but the commission does not even attempt to do that. LaBerge said she has one auditor on staff and the Legislature does not provide her with the money to even begin to audit the massive numbers of reports filed.

“I have stated repeatedly why we are not auditing every filing, and until the powers that be decide it is a priority enough to fund this agency with the auditors it will take to perform the audits, my hands are tied,” she wrote in an email. “My predecessor wasn’t auditing the filings either, in fact her auditor wasn’t getting the job done period.”

She blamed adversarial news outlets, including the AJC, for ignoring the commission’s accomplishments.

“It may be hard for the press to concentrate on the accomplishments of this agency, but the staff here hasn’t had trouble concentrating on the job and getting it done in excellent fashion,” she said. “The timing of the interest in the accomplishments of this agency is odd.”

When asked to list her agency’s accomplishments, LaBerge did not respond.

LaBerge puts the blame for the agency’s shortcomings in processing complaints on the recently fired staff attorney Elisabeth Murray-Obertein, skewering her bosses and the Attorney General’s office in the bargain.

LaBerge hired Murray-Obertein in December 2011 and in a May 3, 2013, email she asked commissioners to approve a 12 percent pay raise for the attorney “based on her work performance.”

Yet in an email last week, she said Murray-Obertein was “not doing any work of any kind” in the 10 months prior to her dismissal because of what LaBerge called a substance abuse problem.

“I was not allowed to take any action in regards to this issue even though the commissioners and the AG’s office knew about the situation repeatedly,” she said in an email exchange with the AJC last week. “No one involved wanted to look at the volumes of documentation I had on this matter and the state just rushed to pay (her) off…This is my fault how?”

Murray-Obertein was a key witness in the whistleblower suits filed by former executive secretary Kalberman and her top deputy, both of whom claimed they were forced out of their jobs for aggressively pursuing the Deal investigation. She testified LaBerge bragged about sandbagging the Deal investigation, claiming Deal “owed” her as a result.

The commission fired Murray-Obertein in January after a police report alleged unnamed co-workers said they smelled alcohol on her breath earlier that day.

Following her dismissal, Murray-Obertein threatened to file a whistleblower lawsuit. The state settled the case for more than $400,000.

Ed Buckley, Murray-Obertein’s attorney, called LaBerge’s comments “exaggerated, defamatory and represent a badly skewed version of private personnel information which is protected from disclosure under the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

“Ms. LaBerge falsely states that Ms. Murray Obertein was not doing work of any kind. In fact, she was working on the ethics cases involving Governor Deal, as well as other cases,” he said. “It is clearly Ms. LaBerge’s intention to make it impossible for Ms. Murray-Obertein to secure employment anywhere in the state of Georgia. We find her actions reprehensible.”

Since LaBerge took over the agency at the start of fiscal 2012, there have been at least half a dozen other staff departures.

In an email last week, LaBerge said the staff turnover is not a reflection of her leadership. “What state agency has not had massive turnover in the last five years?” she said. “A new administration always brings employee turnover and that’s not the only reason people leave.”

Turnover may be common in state government, but not always like this. Among those who left:

Media specialist John Hair was fired, and later filed a whistle-blower lawsuit that cost taxpayers more than $400,000.

Education support specialist Valeria Stubbs was fired and later filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. IT director Reggie Boswell quit. Ditto confidential secretary Lisa Dentler.

Auditor Gwendolyn Jones also quit, and later filed a complaint with the state Inspector General.

In the Kalberman case, LaBerge was asked several questions about how she treated staff and how employees spent their time. In her deposition, she was asked to respond to a claim from Jones that commission employees were “stealing” state time. Not true, she said.

She also disputed a claim by Beau Marthone, the commission’s web developer who also quit, that she called him incompetent and made him cry in front of other employees.

“So they’d all be lying?” Kalberman attorney Kim Worth asked LaBerge.

“That is correct,” LaBerge replied. “I never said (that) to those employees or anybody else over there.”

LaBerge has also testified that she never bragged about scuttling ethics cases for the governor.

Future uncertain

LaBerge may yet be part of another whistleblower lawsuit — her own.

In a July 11 letter to commissioners, LaBerge’s personal attorney, Lee Parks, said LaBerge “has become increasingly frustrated over the misrepresentations and false allegations leveled against her by the various commission employees which have garnered widespread media interest.”

Shortly after Parks sent the letter, LaBerge appeared on TV station Fox 5 Atlanta and claimed her reputation has been destroyed. In his letter, Parks said LaBerge has been “isolated in her duties at the commission.”

“We again remind you that Ms. LaBerge’s employment is protected by her whistle-blowing actions and ask the commission to act in accordance with the law moving forward.”

Lawsuit fatigue could be one reason the commissioners haven’t already fired her and why all declined to speak on the record about her job performance.

In a meeting last month, commissioners specifically excluded LaBerge from a closed session with their state attorney to discuss “pending litigation.”

“Does the pending litigation not include me?” LaBerge asked.

Depending on what action commissioners take when they reconvene Monday morning, LaBerge’s last day of work may have already come and gone. Stringfellow said LaBerge left work early last Wednesday and did not come to work the rest of the week.

“Now with a superior court judge calling her dishonest, I can’t fathom how the ethics commission could keep her on as the executive secretary,” said Perry with Common Cause Georgia.

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