Federal authorities met with state investigators over Deal ethics case

Two state investigators who were building an ethics case against Gov. Nathan Deal last year met several times with federal public-corruption authorities to discuss the inquiry, according to emails reviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Sherilyn Streicker, the No. 2 staff member at the state ethics commission, wrote in an email May 19 that she and Stacey Kalberman, the commission’s executive director, planned to meet with the FBI the next day. This was part of a series of such meetings, including one that involved an Internal Revenue Service investigator, documented by the emails.

The U.S. attorney’s office will not confirm or deny whether a federal investigation 0f Deal took place.

The governor’s attorney said this week that Kalberman and Streicker were merely trying to “shop” baseless charges to the FBI.

“There was never anything to it,” the attorney, Randy Evans, said. “They were writing checks they couldn’t cover.”

Less than a month after Kalberman’s and Streicker’s planned meeting with the FBI, the ethics commission chairman told Kalberman her salary was to be cut by $35,000 a year and Streicker’s job was being eliminated. The chairman, Patrick Millsaps, who is no longer on the commission, said this week that he did not know about the contacts with federal authorities. He reiterated his past statements that the actions against Kalberman and Streicker were not reprisals but were the result of budget pressures.

The emails reviewed by the AJC include exchanges between Streicker and Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert McBurney, who oversaw public-corruption cases. In one, McBurney raised the possibility of Streicker being designated a special assistant U.S. attorney to work with his office on the Deal matter. First Assistant U.S. Attorney John Horn said this week that Streicker was never made a special assistant in the office.

McBurney, who did not respond to emails or phone calls seeking comment this week, was appointed by Deal to a Fulton County Superior Court judgeship in February 2012.

The ethics commission in July cleared Deal of major violations, which effectively ended more than two years of state complaints and investigations. The commission voted to dismiss allegations that Deal benefited when his campaign paid for airfare on a plane that he partly owned, as well as claims that he improperly used state campaign dollars to pay for legal fees related to a federal ethics investigation.

Instead, Deal agreed to pay $3,350 in administrative fees for a series of “technical defects” in his financial and campaign disclosures. A commission staff draft of an earlier proposed agreement recommended $70,000 in fines, but that never made it to the commission for a vote.

After the state ethics commission concluded its investigation into Deal in July, the agency released thousands of pages of documents in response to an open records request from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The AJC asked whether additional documents were being improperly withheld from public disclosure. More than two weeks later, the commission released thousands of pages additional documents, including the e-mails between Streicker and McBurney as well as drafts of subpoenas Streicker and Kalberman wanted to serve on Deal and seven others connected to him.

In an April 2011 email, McBurney wrote to Streicker that he and an FBI agent “discussed the possibility of seeking to have you designated as a SAUSA to work with us on our version of what you are looking at.” A SAUSA is a special assistant U.S. attorney.

In an earlier email to Streicker, McBurney wrote, “Thanks for hosting us yesterday. It was a very informative session. Expect [an FBI agent] to call in the near future seeking a session with you and your singing spreadsheet.”

McBurneysaid earlier that, before applying for the Fulton judgeship, he reviewed his caseload and determined there was no conflict regarding Deal.

Pete Strom, who was U.S. attorney in Charleston, S.C., from 1993-1996, said he had never heard of a state agency official being deputized as a special assistant U.S. attorney. Such arrangements are made sometimes, he said, with local prosecutors.

“I wouldn’t say it’s done frequently. It is done time to time for very special circumstances,” Strom said.

The main advantage would be to give the non-federal official access to federal grand jury material, which they would otherwise be barred from seeing, he said.

Kalberman linked the decision to cut her salary and eliminate her deputy’s job to their requests for subpoenas against the governor’s campaign. Commission members declined to authorize the subpoenas.

Millsaps, the former chairman, said he was “very surprised” that there were emails showing commission staff met with federal investigators. Millsaps said commissioners were never provided any information about a federal investigation.

Evans, Deal’s attorney, said Kalberman and Streicker “tried to stir up trouble” by contacting federal officials. “They were desperately trying to find anyone who would listen.”

The evidence of that, he said, is that the whole thing “just kind of died.”

“Law enforcement did their job,” he said. “The best evidence that there was nothing to it was what happened. Nothing.”

Evans maintains that he was never aware that Deal was under federal investigation.

The AJC reported in September 2010 that Deal’s campaign had paid a company that he partly owned $135,000 for the use of an airplane. Rome-based ethics watchdog George Anderson later filed an ethics complaint that accused Deal of financially benefiting from campaign expenditures.

But this year the ethics commission unanimously said there was no probable cause to believe Deal violated the law that prohibits such a personal benefit.

The other high-profile case against Deal was also a result of reporting by the AJC. The paper reported in 2009 that Deal for years had a lucrative, no-bid agreement with the state to provide space for state employees to inspect rebuilt salvaged cars. The AJC found that Deal and his staff had personally intervened with state officials who wanted to open the program to more locations.

The story prompted an investigation by the Office of Congressional Ethics, which found that Deal, then a member of the U.S. House, might have violated federal ethics rules. Deal resigned from the U.S. House before the investigation could move forward. But in defending himself, Deal used his gubernatorial campaign account to pay Evans and others at the McKenna Long law firm.

In her lawsuit, Kalberman, the former commissioner director, says she had discovered “troubling irregularities” in Deal’s campaign accounts, including donations in excess of contribution limits and contribution reports with “systematic irregularities.”

Kalberman says she asked the campaign for documents in September 2010 but Deal’s attorney ignored her. She says she held off on the investigation at the commission’s request until after the election so it would not be “perceived as an attempt to influence the election.”

The AJC reported in July 2010 that former state Revenue Commissioner Bart Graham was subpoenaed to appear before a federal grand jury and to turn over documents related to Deal’s business arrangement with the state. Evans said at the time that he was assured by the U.S. attorney’s office that Deal was not a target of an investigation.

The subpoena was signed by McBurney. Graham also met in his office with McBurney and an FBI agent.

 2009 and 2010
 May 2009: U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal, a Republican, announces he will seek the governorship.
 March 2010: Deal resigns from the U.S. House, saying he needs more time to devote to his gubernatorial campaign.
 July 2010: Deal and former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel are the top two finishers in the GOP  primary; the race goes to a runoff. 
 August 2010: Deal wins the nomination by 2,519 votes.
 November 2010: Deal wins the governorship by defeating Democrat Roy Barnes, a former governor.

 January-May: The top two staff members of the state ethics commission, Executive Director Stacey Kalberman and her deputy, Sherilyn Streicker, open an investigation of the Deal campaign. They meet with federal prosecutors and the FBI concerning their inquiry. The two draw up subpoenas for Deal and others and prepare to serve them.
 June: Kalberman and Streicker are gone from their jobs. Streicker’s job is eliminated. Kalberman’s salary is cut from $120,000 to $85,000 and she resigns. The chairman of the ethics commission says he needed to cut costs.
 June: Kalberman and Streicker file separate whistleblower lawsuits against the state.
 July: The state ethics commission concludes its investigation into complaints against Deal. It dismisses the major complaints, but he agrees to pay fees total lung $3,350 for  “technical defects” on personal financial and campaign disclosures.
 July 23: The state ethics commission clears Deal of major ethics violations while finding he made “technical defects” in a series of personal financial and campaign finance reports.
 July 26: The AJC requests access to the closed investigative file under the state Open Records Act.
 July 30: Ethics commission Executive Director Holly LaBerge, who succeeded Kalberman,  responds that the agency is “still working on organizing” the file and estimates their work, including redacting “appropriate information,” will be complete by Wednesday, Aug. 8
 Aug. 9: Three AJC reporters review thousands of pages released by the commission but notice the file includes little of the material produced by Kalberman and Streicker.
 Aug. 10: The AJC emails LaBerge and commission Chairman Kevin Abernethy to inquire whether all of Kalberman’s and Streicker’s records were included in the file.
 Aug. 27: LaBerge tells the AJC that additional records are available for inspection.

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.

Staff writer Aaron Gould Sheinin contributed to this article.