Governor fires back on ethics claim

Ex-ethics official had concerns

The lone Democrat on Georgia’s ethics panel was kept in the dark as two Republican commissioners consulted with Nathan Deal’s office to replace the agency’s director in the midst of investigating the governor, according to new legal documents reviewed Friday by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Kent Alexander, a former federal prosecutor who has resigned from the commission, said in sworn testimony that the communication between Holly LaBerge and Deal’s office prior to LaBerge’s hiring in August 2011 was “problematic.”

“Until today, I was not aware of that, assuming that that occurred,” Alexander said in a legal deposition.

The AJC revealed Wednesday that Deal’s office had reached out to LaBerge about leading the ethics commission a month before there was ever an opening and as it was in the midst of probing Deal’s conduct during his 2010 bid for governor.

Deal and his attorney do not dispute that the governor’s aides met with LaBerge before she was hired. They characterize that as part of routine discussions about new hires. But Deal has called others parts of the report “unsubstantiated” and blasted the AJC’s coverage.

Patrick Millsaps, the commission chairman when LaBerge was hired, said in his own sworn testimony that he disagreed with suggestions that the governor had helped LaBerge win the job.

“That’s up to the commission,” Millsaps said. “The governor has no influence over me.”

A current and former staff member of the commission said in sworn testimony that LaBerge boasted of her relationship with the governor and said Deal “owed” her after she helped resolve his legal issues. The commission’s staff lawyer recommended a fine of $70,o00. Deal eventually paid $3,350 for technical defects in his campaign and personal disclosure filings. The most serious charges were dismissed by the five-member commission, made up of four Republican appointees and Alexander.

Alexander left the commission Aug. 28, saying in his letter of resignation that he wants to focus on “other professional and civic commitments.”

The allegations against LaBerge were leveled in sworn testimony by the ethics commission’s staff attorney, Elisabeth Murray-Obertein, who has filed a human resources complaint alleging LaBerge retaliated against her for testifying in a suit filed by LaBerge’s predecessor, Stacey Kalberman.

Murray-Obertein said LaBerge met frequently with Deal chief of staff Chris Riley.

But Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said the two “never met one on one to discuss the ethics complaints.”

Instead, they discussed agency business and legislation, Robinson said.

The other allegations came from former commission computer specialist John Hair, who said LaBerge asked him to remove documents from the official Deal file. He refused, he said, and was later fired.

The state Attorney General’s Office said Friday that it was informed by the ethics commission that no documents were ultimately removed from the file.

LaBerge was hired in August 2011 to replace Kalberman, who along with her former deputy, Sherilyn Streicker, are suing the state. They say they were pushed out of their jobs for aggressively investigating several complaints against Deal. Kalberman’s salary was cut by nearly 30 percent and Streicker’s job was eliminated soon after they proposed subpoenas related to the Deal investigation.

Kalberman, who now works out of state, said the “irony in this situation is that none of the persons quoted for the AJC article are even parties to my case or worked at the ethics commission during my administration.”

Speaking about Deal, Kalberman said: “Surely, if one of his employees was acting inappropriately, he would want to know about it so he could take appropriation action. Similarly, if a state agency is accused of improper conduct, he would want to know about that, too.”

The legal documents examined by the AJC provide a fresh look behind the scenes of the political wrangling.

At one point, LaBerge’s resume contained references to her work at Ann Taylor Loft and a farm supply company. Following contact with the governor’s office, a crisper document emerged that emphasized her work in the House Budget Office and the Public Defender Standards Council. And it showed friendly conversations with Commissioners Patrick Millsaps and Josh Belinfante in May 2011. Kalberman’s salary was cut in June.

LaBerge, who also has given sworn testimony in Kalberman’s suit, said in a deposition that the changes to her resume weren’t a result of any advice from Deal’s aides.

Millsaps said in a deposition that candidates were being vetted for Kalberman’s job before it was actually open because she might react poorly to getting her pay cut.

“At that point, I knew I was going to have a conversation with Ms. Kalberman about reducing her salary and … budget changes. And if she did not agree to that and if she had quit or something like that, we would need very quickly to find somebody else,” he said.

George Anderson, whose complaints led to the Deal ethics probe, said he will make new filings Monday with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, state Attorney General Sam Olens and the state inspector general. Anderson, who frequently files ethics complaints, alleged that the governor violated state laws involving honest government service and conflicts of interest.

Anderson said he’s not confident his complaints will get very far with state officials. Olens, like Deal, is a Republican statewide elected official and Inspector General Deron Hicks was appointed by Deal.

“I learned years and years ago, it might not do any good,” Anderson said, “but at least I am going to try.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.