Governor questions timing of FBI inquiry involving his 2010 campaign

Gov. Nathan Deal on Thursday questioned the timing of FBI inquiries into the state’s beleaguered ethics commission but said he was confident his office was not the target of the probe.

The governor's comments were in response to news that five current and former state ethics officials at the center of the commission's 2010 inquiry into Deal's campaign have been subpoenaed by a federal grand jury.

Deal said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News that no one in his office has been contacted by federal agents, which he said leads him to believe the investigation centers on current or former staffers of the ethics agency.

“I want them to investigate everything they want to,” he said before an event here. “If documents are missing, if we’ve got copies of those documents, I’ll provide them again.”

He also raised questions about the timing of the inquiry, which comes as he faces a heated re-election bid against two Republican rivals and a Democratic challenger, state Sen. Jason Carter, D-Atlanta.

“I don’t think it’s coincidental in the timing. I don’t know that for sure, but I don’t know why it’s happening now,” he said. “There’s been a lot of time since the 2010 election cycle, and this all relates to that.”

When pushed on whether he believes political opponents are behind the inquiry, Deal demurred.

“I’ll leave the speculation to others on that,” he said.

A spokesman for U.S. Attorney Sally Yates declined to comment.

The AJC reported Thursday that commission attorney Elisabeth Murray-Obertein and executive secretary Holly LaBerge were served with the federal subpoenas in the office of the agency responsible for holding the state’s elected officials accountable. Former staffers John Hair, Stacey Kalberman and Sherilyn Streicker also received subpoenas for documents related to the commission’s investigation into Deal’s 2010 campaign, according to the report.

The governor’s GOP rivals say the FBI’s interest in Georgia’s ethics commission is a sign that change is overdue. And Democrats are quick to cite the news as an example why state ethics rules should be overhauled.

The AJC reported in October that the FBI was investigating the agency, which has been embroiled in controversy since before Kalberman and Streicker filed whistle-blower lawsuits claiming they lost their jobs for investigating Deal's 2010 campaign.

After the AJC asked LaBerge on Oct. 8 for communications between agency staff related to the FBI or the Justice Department, LaBerge queried her employees: Has anyone been contacted by either federal agency? Those employees who responded said, “No,” according to documents obtained through an Open Records Act request. But in her Oct. 10 response to the AJC’s request, LaBerge said Murray-Obertein “has had verbal conversations with the FBI.”

Now, the federal subpoenas only further cloud the governor’s race.

The subpoenas offer little in the way of details into the investigation. A recipient of one of the requests, who declined to publicly comment for fear of interfering with the probe, said it requested all documents related to the commission’s investigation of Deal.

Deal attorney Randy Evans said he’s confident the governor is not the target of the investigation and that his office has not received any subpoenas or even a phone call from an investigator. Analysts said these types of inquiries generally begin on the periphery before possibly moving toward a potential target.

“If a source says there is some sort of cover-up, the government normally subpoenas the investigative file and all the internal communications for the ethics committee,” said Bill Salinski, a retired Internal Revenue Service investigator who now heads the Financial Investigation Consultants firm.

He said investigators would likely review whether the probe was halted prematurely and seek any internal communication between investigators and supervisors.

Ethics was always destined to be a major issue in the campaign, and that may be why the governor sought to inoculate himself with a push last year to tighten ethics rules. His office is also quick to point out that Gov. Sonny Perdue’s overwhelming re-election victory in 2006 came amid questions of a sketchy land deal.

But Deal’s campaign rivals quickly pounced on the news. David Pennington, the conservative Dalton mayor challenging Deal in the GOP primary, called the ethics problems “embarrassments to Republicans and all Georgia citizens.” And state Schools Superintendent John Barge, another hopeful in the Republican race, used similar language in his critique.

“Regardless of whether the governor and his staff were involved in the questions raised here, there are continual ethical issues surrounding this administration,” he said. “This is not how government should be run in Georgia. The citizens of Georgia deserve better.”