Ethics commission fires staff attorney

With no comment, the state ethics commission voted Tuesday to fire its staff attorney three weeks after police said she appeared intoxicated at work.

Elisabeth Murray-Obertein, hired in December 2011, had been on administrative leave since Jan. 8, when Capitol police were called to the commission’s office on Capitol Hill.

“We are disappointed in the commission’s decision to take this course of action,” Murray-Obertein’s lawyer, Brian Sutherland, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Ms. Murray-Obertein is considering her options.”

Murray-Obertein is a key witness in a pair of whistle-blower lawsuits related to the commission’s handling of an investigation into Gov. Nathan Deal’s 2010 campaign. Those lawsuits, brought by former ethics commission director Stacey Kalberman and her former top deputy, Sherilyn Streicker, are set to begin in early February in Fulton County Superior Court.

Murray-Obertein has given sworn statements in the cases that current commission director Holly LaBerge intervened in Deal’s ethics case and bragged that the governor “owes” her. LaBerge has denied the claims in her own sworn statements.

Deal was accused of multiple campaign finance violations. While Murray-Obertein recommended $70,000 in fines, the commission voted in 2012 to clear Deal of major violations and assess about $3,000 in fees for “technical defects.”

It is unclear what Murray-Obertein’s firing means for the lawsuits, in which both Kalberman and Streicker claim they were forced out of their positions for pressing the Deal investigation. Sutherland, Murray-Obertein’s attorney, declined to comment on the Streicker case. Kalberman’s attorney, Kim Worth, could not be reached.

William Perry, executive director of the watchdog group Common Cause Georgia, has closely followed the travails of the commission, which include federal subpoenas and two state investigations. He predicts Murray-Obertein’s firing will lead to more litigation for the commission, which is charged with keeping watch over the state’s elected officials.

“Hopefully something positive will happen soon to start taking this agency in a positive direction,” he said. “Either way, I think this move today likely sets up a third whistle-blower lawsuit against the commission.”

According to the police report, LaBerge called police. An Officer Woods reported that unnamed co-workers said they smelled alcohol on Murray-Obertein’s breath earlier in the morning of Jan. 8. Murray-Obertein told Woods that she had fallen on an escalator that morning and was in slight pain. When prompted, she said she had taken a prescribed narcotic and had one glass of wine the night before.

“Once I got within 7-8 inches of Mrs. Murray-Obertein’s person, I could smell the odor of an alcoholic beverage upon her breath,” Woods wrote in the report.

Murray-Obertein refused to take a Breathalyzer test and was allowed to leave with her husband.

It is the second time in recent months that police were called to the commission regarding Murray-Obertein’s behavior. In November, according to another incident report, Murray-Obertein was transported to Grady Memorial Hospital after police said she struggled with her motor skills, including slurred speech and “disoriented thought.”

At the time, Murray-Obertein said she was diagnosed with a chronic condition that caused pain and that she was taking several prescribed medications.

Meanwhile, the commission — formally known as the Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission — also voted to return the power to hire and fire personnel to Laberge. The panel earlier this month voted to assume that power itself, presumably to decide as a board to fire Murray-Obertein.

LaBerge and two commissioners will now begin a search for a new staff attorney.

Also Tuesday, longtime commission employee Lisa Dentler said she was resigning her post Feb. 7 to return to the insurance industry. Dentler, whose title is confidential secretary, is the de facto office manager and a key member of the staff.