Deal endorsement of ethics chief followed her memo of being pressured

Less than a year after Georgia’s ethics commission director said she felt pressured to make complaints against Gov. Nathan Deal “go away,” the governor wrote a letter recommending her inclusion in the elite Leadership Georgia program.

The governor wrote the recommendation despite the fact that he’s said he doesn’t really know the ethics commission’s executive director, Holly LaBerge.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained a copy of the recommendation a week after it reported that text and email messages between LaBerge and Deal’s chief of staff, Chris Riley, showed the two engaged in lighthearted banter around the time LaBerge claimed to have been pressured to settle Deal’s cases in July 2012.

In a later text from May 2013, LaBerge followed up on a request to Riley to get a letter of recommendation to back up her application to Leadership Georgia, an affiliate of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce that trains a select group of future leaders.

In a June 11, 2013, letter signed by Deal, the governor says, “It is my pleasure to recommend Holly LaBerge to the Leadership Georgia class of 2014.

“While working in various positions throughout state government, Holly has shown leadership in improving government transparency throughout Georgia.

“I believe Holly LaBerge would be an excellent candidate for Leadership Georgia. Her unique and diverse perspective on the many challenges that face our state should fit in well in Leadership Georgia’s mission. I would appreciate your consideration of her application.”

A little more than three months later, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that employees and former employees of the commission had accused LaBerge of improperly intervening into an investigation of Deal’s 2010 campaign. Among the allegations made in sworn testimony was that LaBerge had claimed Deal owed her for making his legal troubles disappear.

During a press conference on Sept. 20, Deal responded: “For somebody that I don’t know, I don’t see how I could owe her anything.”

LaBerge also denied the accusation in her own testimony.

Despite Deal’s help, LaBerge wasn’t accepted into Leadership Georgia. The group gets about 600 applications a year and accepts 63 people to the program.

Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said the governor has written many similar recommendation since taking office.

“The fact that the governor was asked for a recommendation shows a respectful and professional relationship was maintained with her before, during and after the cases involving Deal for Governor were completed.”

Deal has said he didn’t know LaBerge, and Robinson said that they only met briefly at a ceremony where someone she knows was sworn onto a board or into a state post.

“There are certainly times when the office sends out things under his name,” he said. “It’s a form letter. He doesn’t know her, she doesn’t know him.”

Robinson said the request for a recommendation came in from “people the governor respects and knows,” including a top elected official. He declined to name the official.

William Perry, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, was skeptical.

“How many people write letters of recommendation for people they can’t pick out of a crowd when they walk in the room?” Perry asked. “It certainly makes their relationship seem not as distant as he said it was. It seems contradictory to the governor’s prior comments about how the agency functioned.”

In a controversial memo released two weeks ago, LaBerge claims that on July 16 and July 17, 2012, she was threatened by Deal counsel Ryan Teague and Riley to settle a series of complaints against Deal’s 2010 campaign for governor.

The back-and-forth between LaBerge, Riley and Teague came less than a week before the ethics commission voted to dismiss major charges against Deal, who agreed to pay $3,350 in fees for technical defects in his campaign disclosure.

The complaints included claims Deal improperly paid for use of a private aircraft for campaign travel and questioned his use of campaign funds to pay legal fees during his 2010 campaign for governor.

The state has agreed to pay nearly $3 million to settle three lawsuits, and a threatened fourth, brought by former commission employees who claim they were fired or forced from office over the Deal investigation or its aftermath.

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Staff writer Aaron Gould Sheinin contributed to this article.