The state ethics commission has attracted yet another whistleblower lawsuit, this one filed by its former staff attorney who already has received $477,500 in an earlier whistleblower settlement.
Elisabeth Murray-Obertein filed the complaint this week in Fulton County Superior Court claiming public comments made about her by former commission executive secretary Holly LaBerge since the state settled her last claim have so damaged her reputation she cannot find a new job.
The lawsuit does not ask for specific damages but claims Murray-Obertein is entitled to wages and benefits “and other remuneration” she might have earned had LaBerge not laid most of the blame for the commission’s dysfunction at her feet.
So far the state has paid out $3 million in settlements to former ethics commission employees who claimed they were retaliated against amid an investigation into Gov. Nathan Deal’s 2010 election campaign.
This latest lawsuit comes a week before a gubernatorial election pitting Deal in a tight race against State Sen. Jason Carter, a Democrat, and Libertarian candidate Andrew T. Hunt. A frustrated Deal said Wednesday the lawsuit is “all the more reason” to reform the commission after the election.
“That’s one of the priorities I’ll have next year,” he said, “to make the ethics commission a workable one.”
Deal has proposed expanding the commission from five to 12 members, including appointments from the judicial branch. Deal is hardly alone in pledging to reform the troubled office.
Carter, should he be elected, pledged a more politically and financially independent commission. State Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, has advocated dismantling the current commission and starting from scratch. Even current members of the commission, like political strategist Heath Garrett, have advocated for a legislative overhaul.
The calls for reform got louder when the state started writing checks to end the whistleblower lawsuits, starting in April with a $1.15 million award to former commission director Stacey Kalberman, who claimed she was forced out of her job by the commission’s appointed board for aggressively pursuing the Deal investigation.
After a Fulton County jury sided with Kalberman in that case, the state moved quickly to settle complaints with other aggrieved former staffers. Along with Murray-Obertein’s settlement, former deputy director Sherilyn Streicker settled her claim against the commission for $1 million and John Hair, a computer specialist for the agency, received $410,000.
In addition, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Ural Glanville last month fined LaBerge and the Attorney General’s Office $10,000 each for failing to turn over a damaging memo in the Kalberman trial. In the memo, LaBerge detailed texts and calls she received from Deal’s staff in the days leading up the commission’s ruling on the investigation.
The commission fired Murray-Obertein in January three weeks after Capitol police reported that she appeared intoxicated while at work. Murray-Obertein was a key witness in the whistleblower claims filed by Kalberman and Streicker. In a deposition taken prior to her firing, Murray-Obertein said LaBerge bragged that Deal “owed” her for settling the investigation.
The new claim centers on remarks LaBerge made about Murray-Obertein over the summer to several news outlets, including The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, in which she claimed Murray-Obertein was incompetent, had a substance abuse problem and was the reason why the commission did no work on scores of ethics complaints for nearly a year.
“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,” LaBerge said in an email exchange with the AJC this summer.
LaBerge’s statements to Fox 5 and WABE-FM also were cited in Murray-Obertein’s new lawsuit. Cheryl Legare, Murray-Obertein’s attorney, would not comment on the suit. LaBerge’s attorney, Lee Parks, did not return a call seeking comment.
There may yet be more lawsuits. Following the sanctions by Glanville, the ethics commission fired LaBerge on Sept. 8, and LaBerge has placed state officials on notice that she considers herself a whistleblower.
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Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this report.