LaBerge exit creates new test for ethics panel

Staff writers Aaron Gould Sheinin and Greg Bluestein contributed to this report.


Here’s a glance at who heads the ethics commissions in states across the South.

Ethics director is a lawyer:

Alabama*

Arkansas

Florida

Kentucky**

Louisiana

Mississippi

North Carolina

Ethics director is experienced in campaign finance or government ethics:

South Carolina

Tennessee

* Ethics director retired in August, position currently vacant

** Kentucky has separate ethics commissions for the legislative and executive branches, both headed by lawyers

Missed some of this developing story? Take advantage of your subscription and logon to MyAJC.com to read the AJC’s exclusive coverage of the problems facing Georgia’s ethics commission.

Here’s the bad news for the state ethics commission: Firing former ethics director Holly LaBerge last week may have been the easy part.

Now the commission’s five appointed board members must find someone to take her place in what will be one of the more closely watched job searches in the state not involving a head football coach.

Their selection could further ruin an already dysfunctional agency or begin to repair public trust.

The task is doubly challenging because a new director will have to commit to an agency with immediate problems — a backlog of 200 unresolved complaints, to name just one — and future uncertainty. Democrats and Republicans, including Gov. Nathan Deal, are calling for more changes to the commission, which might ward off potential replacements.

For LaBerge's successor, the commission's part-time, unpaid board may do well to look at the types of people who staff these positions elsewhere, as The Atlanta Journal-Constitution did last week. Former judges, government watchdogs, and people who actually aspire to the job have served other states well.

The AJC looked at ethics commissions across 10 southern states and found in all cases the commission director was either a lawyer or someone with years of experience in campaign finance or government ethics — or both.

The only exception was Georgia.

Last time, acting on a recommendation from Gov. Nathan Deal’s office, commissioners chose LaBerge, a young, career-climbing bureaucrat from an unaffiliated government office. LaBerge came with no administrative or legal background in government ethics or campaign finance enforcement and took over in September 2011 amid the worst possible atmosphere.

LaBerge’s predecessor, Stacey Kalberman, claimed she and her top deputy were forced out for aggressively pursuing an investigation in to Deal’s 2010 campaign. Both Kalberman and her deputy filed whistleblower lawsuits. In the coming years, disgruntled staffers would file their own lawsuits and allege LaBerge bragged about her role in settling the Deal complaint, while covering up or destroying evidence.

This toxic mix has resulted in years of controversy, nearly $3 million in legal settlements and little to no progress on hundreds of unanswered ethics complaints backed up like a downtown traffic jam. All that bubbled over this month when Fulton County Superior Court Judge Ural Glanville called LaBerge "dishonest and non-transparent" in an order that also fined her $10,000 for withholding a damaging memo in Kalberman's whistleblower suit. LaBerge is appealing.

The judge’s order provided commissioners with the rationale to fire LaBerge and end her disastrous tenure. Now commissioners must find someone willing to walk into the mess and straighten it out.

The commission’s long-form name is the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, but commissioners so far are being less than transparent about their plans.

“I appreciate your interest in the ethics commission and I understand that there are questions regarding the commission and its work,” commission chairwoman Hillary Stringfellow said in e-mail response to the AJC. “However, I trust that you will understand that I am declining the opportunity to speak with you (as well as anyone else) regarding the current work and matters of the commission.”

Other states require experience

The next director will be the commission’s fifth in about four years. While Georgia’s commission has had a rotating cast of leaders, most of the directors in nearby states have been on the job for years.

The Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission, which regulates lobbyists, their employers and members of the General Assembly, is headed up by a former chief justice of the state court of appeals. He's been executive director since 1997.

In Mississippi, the executive director spent three years as the commission's general counsel before being hired to head the agency in 2006.

In Florida, the director is a lawyer who worked 15 years with the Attorney General's office, 13 of which had her assigned to the ethics commission to prosecute violators. She then spent eight years on staff with the ethics commission before becoming executive director in 2011.

That stability in surrounding states actually could play into the hands of Georgia’s ethics commissioners. RickThompson, a former ethics chief in Georgia, said there are plenty of ethics professionals in other states’ commissions looking for a chance to take the top slot in another state.

The job is a tough sell, because even those who have done it think it stinks.

Ben Bycel, an ethics consultant who served as the director of the Connecticut and Los Angeles ethics commissions, said most commissions lack “teeth” and that’s by design.

“There is not a political entity that I know of … that doesn’t want the ethics commission to be silent as if it were in the witness protection program,” he said. “What the politicians, lobbyists, special interest groups and others want to do is to trot out ethics commissions, hold a self-serving press conference and then have the commission wither away in obscurity.”

To be effective, Bycel said an ethics director must view the job as a career-ending move.

“You are not looking for a career in government or politics,” he said. “You view this as maybe your one stop. This is your time in government and you are going to do everything you can.”

Bycel himself was run out of the Connecticut job, in part because he failed to register his car in the state.

“An effective leader of an ethics commission has to be thick-skinned and be prepared, if necessary, to piss powerful people off,” he said. “My actions to enforce the law irritated lots of people in Connecticut and lots of people in LA.”

As a former executive secretary in Georgia, Thompson levied the largest fines in commission history and was credit with building a system that forced politicians and lobbyists to comply with state law. He also angered politicians when he began to randomly audit just a tenth of filings for accuracy. He left the job in 2009 after the Legislature cut his budget by 30 percent.

Thompson now runs a private firm consulting with politicians, lobbyists and political committees on campaign finance and ethical issues. His clients include Deal and more than dozen state lawmakers and candidates.

He believes the commission’s executive secretary should have a five-year term limit attached because of the political pressures associated with it.

“You either make a lot of enemies in five years or you make a lot of friends. It’s hard to balance that out,” he said.

Commission’s structure uncertain

The last time the commission hired an executive secretary they had plenty of applicants — 17 in fact.

Ultimately, LaBerge and Jerry Presley, a former city clerk and city manager with state government experience, were chosen as finalists. After a public interview with the commission, LaBerge was hired. Presley testified that he never received a phone call from the Governor’s Office about the job.

Two other applicants were also interviewed: a state court judge and a lawyer who is also a Republican Party activist.

Among those not called for interviews, were at least two lawyers who served as administrative law judges for the state Department of Labor, a former ethics commission auditor with federal investigative experience, several other lawyers and at least two former legislative aides.

Of the applicants, LaBerge likely had the most state government experience. A former budget analyst for the House of Representatives, LaBerge was governmental affairs director for the Public Defenders Standards Council when she was hired by the commission.

Georgia has competition in searching for an ethics director. Alabama’s ethics commissioners are searching for a replacement for a long-serving ethics director who recently retired.

Commissioners there are looking for an applicant with a law degree and a “background in prosecutorial work” is preferred, according to the job posting. A decade or more of “experience in the legal field or in public or business administration with supervisory responsibility is required.”

Ed Crowell, the retired Air Force general who chairs the Alabama Ethics Commission, said the commission plans to take a careful approach to finding a new director.

The commission plans to appoint retired U.S. Magistrate Judge John Carroll, a former law school dean, as acting director to give them time to find the right candidate.

“We wanted to make this as wide of a search as possible. We wanted to make sure it is not limited to Alabama,” he said.

Crowell said the successful candidate will be politically independent, courageous and must have a “deep and abiding appreciation of ethics.”

“Somebody who can really practice, preach and exercise ethical measure,” he said.

The Alabama job tops out at an annual salary of $177,266. LaBerge was hired at $85,000, and after two raises, she was making $100,000 when she was fired.

Georgia’s top ethics job may be less attractive for other reasons. Both Deal and his Democratic opponent, Sen. Jason Carter, have vowed to reshape the commission after the election.

Sen. Josh McKoon, a Columbus Republican who has built his political reputation as a champion for ethics reform, said lawmakers likely will return to the Capitol in January with their own ideas. He said it might be wise for the commissioners to find an interim leader until after the coming reform debate.

“I don’t know how many people would want to walk into that knowing the ground may shift under their feet,” he said.

McKoon said ideas for reforming the commission likely will center around the appointment of commissioners, but he said more radical reform should be debated.

“My view is to kind of start over,” he said. “Probably no one would say the status quo is working just fine.”

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