Gov. Nathan Deal talks to reporters Thursday about allegations that the head of the state ethics commission intervened on his behalf during an investigation.
Photo: Phil Skinner
Photo: Phil Skinner

Ruling on Deal tainted?

The head of Georgia’s ethics commission is accused of improperly intervening into an investigation of Gov. Nathan Deal, raising serious questions about the independence of the state panel charged with keeping watch over Georgia’s elected officials.

Current and former commission employees told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Wednesday that Holly LaBerge ordered documents removed from the official state investigative file on Deal and met with top aides to the Republican governor while the probe was ongoing.

The revelations are the latest chapter in a long-running saga that began on the campaign trail and still dogs the governor and his aides, though Deal’s camp has maintained the accusations are politically motivated.

The major charges against Deal were dismissed, and he was slapped with a small penalty for technical defects on his campaign filings. Afterward, staffers say LaBerge boasted that the governor “owed” her for making his legal troubles disappear.

Reached by phone late Wednesday, LaBerge declined to comment.

LaBerge was recruited by Deal aides to lead the panel, which was probing complaints against the governor stemming from his 2010 campaign. In a sworn statement obtained by the AJC, LaBerge said she received a phone call from the governor’s office asking whether she was interested in the ethics post even before it was open. The ethics commission is responsible for hiring its own director and is meant to be an independent watchdog overseeing campaign finance and lobbying in the state.

Deal’s office referred questions to his attorney, Randy Evans. He said Wednesday that the five-member ethics commission, not LaBerge, held the ultimate sway over the decisions and that suggesting otherwise was “insulting” to its members. The commission acts on evidence provided by staff members, including the executive secretary.

“We were held to the highest level of scrutiny of any elected official in Georgia history during the campaign,” Evans said. “She’s a staffer, not the commission. And the commission had the power. They looked at the evidence and made a decision.”

Evans didn’t dispute claims that Deal’s office had recruited LaBerge.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if that was true. I don’t know what difference that makes,” Evans said. “She held us to the highest level of scrutiny and didn’t do us any favors. Out of an abundance of caution, we were subjected to a level of scrutiny that was historic.”

After assuming the job, LaBerge bragged of her relationship with Deal and said she had made the governor’s legal troubles evaporate, employees told the AJC.

“Now he owes me. I made this go away,” staff attorney Elisabeth Murray-Obertein said she heard LaBerge say after the commission levied a $3,350 penalty against the governor. That’s well below the $70,000 fine Murray-Obertein originally recommended.

Ex-commission computer specialist John Hair told a similar story. He said he was forced out of his job after refusing to remove documents from Deal’s ethics file.

“She said she made Governor Deal’s legal problems go away and now he owes her, and that I need to ask myself how much I want to continue being a part of the ethics commission,” Hair told the AJC.

Hair would not say what was included in the documents. Evans said he wasn’t involved in any request to remove documents but said he believed the commission’s staff had received requests for financial records that should remain confidential. It is uncertain whether they were ultimately removed.

“I was shocked by her request. I’ve never heard a request like that,” Hair told the AJC. “They were files that had to do with Governor Deal. It was manipulation of files. I believe it was to cover something up.”

Hair said he refused and described LaBerge’s reaction as “furious.” Hair was fired in April.

Murray-Obertein has been the commission’s lone attorney since she was hired shortly after LaBerge in late 2011. Her relations with her boss have been tense. On Friday, she filed a complaint with the State Bar of Georgia claiming that LaBerge, who is not an attorney, had practiced law without a license.

Murray-Obertein had earlier filed a lengthy human resources complaint saying LaBerge retaliated against her when it became known Murray-Obertein had been called to give a sworn statement in a lawsuit filed by LaBerge’s predecessor at the commission.

LaBerge arrived as executive secretary at the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission — more commonly known as the ethics commission — after the tumultuous ouster of the previous chief, Stacey Kalberman.

Kalberman and her deputy, Sherilyn Streicker, met with federal prosecutors and the FBI concerning their probe. They were prepared to serve subpoenas in the case before, citing budget troubles, the commission voted in 2011 to cut Kalberman’s salary by nearly 30 percent and eliminate Streicker’s job.

Critics decried the act as political retaliation, and the pair filed lawsuits alleging they were pushed out for aggressively pursuing the investigation. The ethics complaint included accusations that Deal financially benefited from campaign expenditures. Other complaints included his use of a campaign account to pay legal fees and the way he reported some expenditures on his disclosures.

Their lawsuits are pending in Fulton County Superior Court. LaBerge, Murray-Obertein and Hair are among those who have given sworn statements in the politically sensitive case.

A state inspector general investigation found no evidence to back up the claim that Deal sought to fire Kalberman and Streicker because of the probe. The state IG, Deron Hicks, was appointed by Deal.

Kevin Abernethy, the current chairman of the ethics commission, said Wednesday that “neither I nor the commission will comment on pending litigation or the merit or substance of the statements that you’re referencing.”

After LaBerge came on board the investigation into Deal was resolved. The commission dismissed the major complaints, but Deal agreed to pay fees totaling $3,350 for “technical defects” on personal financial and campaign disclosures.

Deal attorney Evans handled negotiations on the case for the governor. But Murray-Obertein said LaBerge met repeatedly with Deal chief of staff Chris Riley and Ryan Teague, the governor’s taxpayer-funded counsel, while the proposed sanctions were under negotiation.

The final order for the lesser amount, Murray-Obertein said, “was completely influenced by these private meetings and conversations.”

Evans didn’t dispute that the meetings took place but said they were focused on a possible settlement in the long-running case.

LaBerge said in a sworn statement that she believed it was Kalberman who was politically motivated and that almost immediately after arriving at the commission she found “serious problems” with the handling of the Deal case.

Kalberman’s proposed subpoenas, she said in the court papers, were “unbelievably broad.”

“They basically asked for everything in Randy Evans’ office that had Nathan Deal or Chris Riley’s name on it,” she said. “And it was very apparent that that’s not what was needed for this case. They needed to tailor their request.”

“The whole thing was a mess, the whole way the case had been handled,” she said in the sworn statement.

At one point the attorney questioning LaBerge asked about her legal knowledge.

“You’re not an attorney, are you, Ms. LaBerge?” Brian Sutherland asked.

“No, I am not,” she said, but she said the statute is “very clear.”

“I am not a lawyer but that doesn’t mean that I did not consult with somebody who is an attorney in regards to what the statute says,” she said.

Before arriving at the ethics commission, LaBerge had worked at the Public Defender Standards Council.

Hair, who is now unemployed, said he doesn’t regret his decision to refuse LaBerge’s order. In an interview at his suburban Atlanta apartment, he said he decided to blow the whistle to salvage his reputation.

“This isn’t about an angry or disgruntled worker. This is about any average hardworking American trying to do the best they can do,” he said. “And when they’re asked to cross a moral and ethical line, at some point you’ve got to make a stand.”

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Staff writers Chris Joyner, Kristina Torres and James Salzer contributed to this article.