Stefan Ritter served as executive secretary of Georgia’s state ethics commission before resigning amid an investigation into complaints about his conduct at work. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Complaints say Georgia ethics chief watched porn at work, sat on cases

The downfall of the head of Georgia’s ethics commission began a week before Christmas, when staffers started filing complaints saying he was watching pornography at work and telling them to sit on potential campaign finance violations of city hall and gubernatorial candidates.

The allegations, outlined in complaints that The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained Monday, led to an investigation by the commission. Partway through the probe, Commission Executive Secretary Stefan Ritter agreed to resign. On Friday, the commission accepted his resignation, and the panel’s chairman, Jake Evans, said Ritter was awarded three months’ salary, about $45,000.

“I think this is a great result for both parties,” Evans said.

But the complaints, some coming from commission attorneys, raise questions about the decision to settle with Ritter.

Ritter, who had run the agency since 2015 and was credited with helping reduce the agency’s massive backlog of cases following a period of scandal, called the allegations “untrue” in January when they first came to light. When reached Monday, he declined to comment.

Evans said the settlement with Ritter was important because the former executive secretary agreed not to sue over being forced out.

“Just because you are in the right doesn’t stop someone from suing you,” Evans said. “Suing can cost a lot of money and heartache.”

The complaints, from three staffers, list a series of problems over the past year. Some involve personnel matters: his handling of a staffer fired for using a racial slur, another getting a 19 percent pay raise in a year in which most state employees received 2 percent.

But there was more: A staffer said she found hundreds of pornographic images on his computer. Other staffers said they saw him viewing porn in the office.

“Mr. Ritter’s inappropriate conduct in the workplace and misuse of commission resources to view pornography must be addressed,” wrote Robert Lane, a deputy executive secretary of the panel.

In addition, both chief lawyers in the office said the commission staff found that during campaign report audits, possible violations were found against multiple mayoral candidates in the 2017 race. Instead of filing complaints, they said, Ritter told them to let the candidates correct the errors.

A similar outcome happened when audits found problems with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams’ filings, according to the complaints.

“Mr. Lane and I met with Mr. Ritter and informed him that we had found evidence of several violations by the Abrams campaign,” wrote Bethany Whetzel, another deputy executive secretary of the commission. “Mr. Ritter was visibly disappointed that the violations we uncovered related to the Abrams campaign and directed us not to discuss their campaign filings.

“Mr. Ritter never met with the candidates; thus no subpoenas have been issued.”

Abrams campaign officials said they were not notified of any problems with their disclosures and had no knowledge of any issues with their filings.

The agency, formally known as the Georgia Government Transparency & Campaign Finance Commission, is charged with collecting campaign finance, vendor gift and lobbying expenditure reports; registering lobbyists; issuing advisory opinions; and dispensing penalties for violations.

Ritter was an 18-year veteran of the Georgia Attorney General’s Office when he was unanimously chosen over three other candidates to lead the agency. He had previously been the commission’s counsel and was known as an expert on Georgia’s sunshine laws.

Ritter took control of the commission at a tumultuous time. The agency had been without an executive director for months after the firing of Holly LaBerge, who was sanctioned and fined for her role in a whistleblower lawsuit filed by her predecessor.

In 2015, a Fulton County jury found her predecessor, Stacey Kalberman, had been forced from her job for investigating the campaign of Gov. Nathan Deal, and it awarded her and her attorneys $1.15 million.

After years of inaction, a backlog of more than 150 cases was finally cleared in 2017 — just in time for the agency to handle a slew of new complaints filed by Georgia residents, watchdog groups and political adversaries. Ritter was so well thought of that the commission granted him a raise from $165,000 to $181,000 in 2016, a much bigger increase than most state employees received.

The commission put off making any decisions on a series of complaints made during the 2018 campaign, not wanting to influence the elections. So 2019 is expected to be a heavy year for the panel.

Stay on top of what’s happening in Georgia government and politics at ajc.com/news/georgia-government/.

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