Report: No evidence Deal worked to fire ethics officials

A state investigation found no evidence to back up a claim that Gov.  Nathan Deal sought to fire the former head of the state ethics commission and her chief deputy because the agency was investigating Deal, according to a report from Georgia's Inspector General.

The four-month investigation closed Nov. 1 and was based on a complaint filed by George Anderson, head of the Rome-based Ethics in Government Group. Anderson alleged that Deal told then-commission Chairman Patrick Millsaps to "get rid" of Stacey Kalberman, who at the time was the commission's executive director, and her top deputy, Sherilyn Streicker. The pair were investigating Deal for potential violations of state ethics law.

The decision was first reported Thursday by the website Atlanta Unfiltered.

While the Inspector General's Office, which is headed by Deal appointee Deron Hicks, said it was closing the case, the investigative report reveals more detail about federal officials' interest in Deal.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution previously reported that a federal grand jury in June 2010 subpoenaed a state official for information regarding Deal's former private business interests. The paper also reported this summer that the FBI had offered the commission forensic accounting help for its investigation.

"Given that previous communication occurred between State Ethics Commission personnel and FBI, OIG discussed possible referral of case with FBI Special Agent Dan Odum, to avoid duplication of effort," Deputy Inspector General Deb Wallace writes in her case summary. "FBI declined but expressed interest in reviewing file upon OIG's completion."

In an interview with Wallace, Streicker said that she and Kalberman "also conferred with the U.S. Attorney's office, who was investigating two different things involving Governor Deal involving tax records and financial dealings with loans," according to Inspector General's case file. "As a result, Streicker told OIG that the U.S. Attorney's Office ‘encouraged us to go forward on campaign finance investigation' and indicated they were interested in the findings."

A spokesman for U.S. Attorney Sally Yates said the office would have no comment.

After conducting more than 10 interviews and reviewing documents related to the case, Wallace concluded "no evidence was found to substantiate the allegation that Governor Deal used his public office for personal gain by ‘getting rid'" of Kalberman and Streicker.

Kalberman resigned in June after Millsaps after the commission said it was cutting her salary by 30 percent and eliminating Streicker's job. The pair were investigating a series of complaints over how Deal paid for airfare for the campaign, whether he improperly used state campaign funds for legal bills related to a federal ethics investigation and whether he improperly accepted campaign contributions that exceed state limits.

Deal's office referred questions to his outside attorney, Randy Evans, who said the Inspector General's report was "thorough and complete." But Evans took issue with Streicker's comments regarding a federal investigation. Evans said if the FBI or U.S. Attorney were investigating the governor, they would have told the state officials to back off.

Kalberman said Friday that she has received the Inspector General's report but had not yet read it and could not comment.

The AJC reported in June that Kalberman had raised questions about the timing of the commission's plan to cut her salary and eliminate Streicker's job. In the weeks before her resignation, she said the pair had prepared draft subpoenas for Deal and his aides to further their investigation. The subpoenas were never executed because commissioners never signed off. Millsaps said the decision to reduce salary and staff was not related to the investigation but was required due to a budget crunch that threatened the ability of the agency to meet its mandates.

Indeed, the AJC reported this week that the commission has reduced millions of dollars in fines owed by candidates and elected officials because the agency could not afford the postage for late notices.

The Inspector General's report does not affect the ethics commission's investigations, which are still active, commission members have said. But in the months since Kalberman left, the commission has undergone a major overhaul that halted much of its investigative effort. The subpoenas were never issued but the commission did ask Deal's campaign to voluntarily turn over records. Commissioners have refused to say whether that's happened.

Evans would not say if Deal had turned over records but said "we have repeated several times our commitment to provide anything they can ask for. Anything that is needed for the resolution of the claims we're ready, willing and able to provide."

But others are concerned about how an inspector general appointed by the governor can fairly investigate the governor.

"I think in our state it's a problem generally that elected officials either police themselves or appoint the people that police them," said William Perry, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause Georgia. "It does create the perception that the person working for the governor conducted the investigation. That can't be good for anyone."