FBI looking into ethics scandal with alleged ties to governor

FBI questions ethics lawyer at center of Deal complaint

Federal investigators have questioned a state ethics commission attorney who raised concerns about the panel’s investigation into Gov. Nathan Deal, the leader of the embattled agency said Thursday.

The commission’s head, Holly LaBerge, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution after a request under the Open Records Act that her staff attorney, Elisabeth Murray-Obertein, had talked with the FBI. Murray-Obertein’s attorney, Brian Sutherland, also confirmed she had spoken with federal agents but declined to say what was discussed.

Murray-Obertein is a key figure in the allegations lodged in a pair of whistle-blower lawsuits accusing LaBerge of bragging about her relationship with Deal and saying that he “owed her” after the commission dismissed the most serious campaign finance complaints raised in its investigation of the governor.

And a former ethics staffer, ex-computer specialist John Hair, said in an interview that under orders from superiors he altered and removed dozens of documents in the governor’s case file as the review of five complaints accusing Deal of misusing campaign funds in his 2010 election was pending. His attorney, Kim Worth, would not say whether the FBI was also questioning her client.

The allegations made by Murray-Obertein and Hair raised concerns about the independence of the ethics agency charged with holding elected officials accountable in its review of the complaints against Deal.

Who initiated the questioning of Murray-Obertein and the subject of the probe was unclear. Deal attorney Randy Evans said Deal and his aides have not been contacted by federal investigators and they have nothing to hide. He suggested the claims come from “disgruntled employees” seeking legal settlements from the state.

“This has nothing to do with us,” Evans said. “We have been very careful throughout this process.”

Legal analysts said FBI agents typically treat an inquiry the same regardless of whether they are responding to a complaint or they opened a file on their own initiative.

“Federal investigations initially question the person making the complaint and any third-party source,” said Page Pate, a criminal defense attorney who represented former state House Speaker Terry Coleman in a campaign finance probe. “They generally gather as much information as they can from that source before they confront someone who is the target.”

Deal faces new scrutiny after the AJC’s September report that Hair and Murray-Obertein, in sworn testimony, accused LaBerge of interfering with the Deal investigation and ordered documents involved in the investigation removed from the file. She has denied those accusations in sworn testimony, and her attorney said his client welcomed an investigation.

Since then, the newspaper has disclosed legal filings that showed two Republican members of the commission worked with the governor’s office to tap LaBerge as executive director before the position became vacant and a claim by Murray-Obertein that the panel’s chairman pressured her to quietly settle cases against Deal.

Deal’s office said it’s not unusual for a state agency to consult aides over a possible hire, even if the investigation was actively investigating Deal at the time. And Deal said he has no knowledge of the inner workings at the ethics commission, which is fraught with “personal agendas” from employees not under his oversight.

In an interview Thursday, the governor challenged Hair to document what was removed from the case file. Hair has said he didn’t scrutinize the dozens of documents he removed and altered from the file but said he believes some of the data included financial information.

“To my knowledge, no documents were taken out of the record,” Deal said. “I certainly have no reason for anything to be removed. And if somebody did so, they should come forward and tell people what they removed, what they deleted.”