Ethics questions may make governor’s race interesting

On the Day of the Long Knives, the strange day two years ago that the Georgia ethics commission forced both its executive director and its only investigator to resign, Kent Alexander played a valuable role as a mediator and fixer.

While journalists and others looked on, Alexander met that day behind closed doors in executive session with his fellow members of the ethics commission, who were trying to push out their top staff people. He would then leave the meeting to huddle in private with the targeted staff members, trying to win their acceptance of the deal, a process that was repeated several times..

As he later explained in a court deposition, his shuttle diplomacy was intended as an act of good will, “to help everyone resolve what would — had become — a contentious situation.”

In hindsight, the well-respected Alexander, a former federal prosecutor, had been used.

At the time of their ouster, Executive Director Stacey Kalberman and Deputy Director Sherilyn Streicker had been pushing for an aggressive investigation, including the issuance of subpoenas, into allegations of ethics violations against Gov. Nathan Deal. Alexander knew that and supported the investigation.

However, he did not know that the governor’s office had become directly involved in the effort to remove Kalberman and Streicker. He did not know that at least a month before their ouster, Deal’s staff had begun secretly vetting and recruiting a replacement for Kalberman. He did not know that as court depositions now reveal, at least two of his fellow commissioners had already gone behind his back and been in contact with the replacement recruited by Deal’s office.

Nor did he know that the new executive director, recruited at least in part for her loyalty to the governor, would eventually find only “technical violations” and recommend closing the case against Deal with a small $3,350 fine. Alexander had been operating under the assumption that the removal was connected to a budget dispute, and he did not know that he had been used to make it all go smoothly.

Although he hasn’t commented in public, the discovery had to alarm or even anger Alexander. As a former federal prosecutor, he no doubt understands quite well that the subject of an investigation should never have or use the power to fire those investigating him. It is at the very least an abuse of authority.

Two days after giving a deposition in which the role of the governor’s office was made clear to him, Alexander resigned from the ethics commission, citing “other professional and civic commitments.”

So now what?

Whistle-blower suits filed in Fulton County Superior Court by Kalberman and Streicker have forced these facts onto the public record, and if those suits go to trial, the results will be unpredictable. However, a deal in which the state makes the cases go away through a financial settlement might be even more explosive in political terms. And late last month, the ethics commission acknowledged the blow to its credibility and took the extraordinary step of requesting an independent, outside investigation into itself and its activities.

For his part, the governor has blasted The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for publishing the allegations, but with an election barely a year away, the prospect of a truly independent probe like that former Gov. Sonny Perdue launched in the Atlanta schools scandal has to be daunting.

For the most part, Deal has proved an effective governor, particularly in areas such as criminal justice reform. With some exceptions, such as his decision not to allow some 650,000 lower-income Georgians to benefit from Medicaid expansion, he has also refrained from the ideological excesses of governors in other states.

Perhaps because of that record, Deal has drawn two Republican opponents, although neither would ordinarily pose a serious threat in a GOP primary. Connie Stokes, a former state senator, has announced she will run as a Democrat, but she too lacks the background to run a major race. However, state Sen. Jason Carter, perhaps sensing weakness, is sniffing around the race as well, which would up the ante considerably. What should have been an easy re-election bid has the potential to become something more.