Ethics commission ‘back on track,” its director says

Complete coverage

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has spent years following infighting, funding lapses and legal challenges plaguing the state’s ethics commission. To see an interactive timeline detailing that coverage, go to

After nearly 18 months of dysfunction, internal bickering and a series of lawsuits, the state ethics commission said Tuesday that the agency has its act back together.

Commissioners praised new staff attorneys Bethany Whetzel and Robert Lane for getting a handle on more than 190 outstanding complaints against candidates and elected officials. The pair, hired in July, have also prepared proposed changes to the agency’s rules and regulations, more than a year after lawmakers agreed to give them that power.

“They’ve gotten us back on track,” commission director Holly LaBerge said at Tuesday’s meeting, the first for the agency since March.

Commissioners also elected Hillary Stringfellow, a Brunswick attorney, as the new chairwoman of the commission, succeeding Kevin Abernethy, whose term ended June 30.

The work on outstanding cases and regulations marks a turnaround for the agency, formally known as the Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission.

Four former employees have settled claims against the agency that they were unfairly forced from their jobs. Those settlements cost taxpayers nearly $3 million.

The agency and LaBerge, however, still face challenges.

A former commission director, Stacey Kalberman, has asked a Fulton County judge to sanction the commission, LaBerge and Attorney General Sam Olens' office, saying they improperly withheld evidence in Kalberman's lawsuit, one of the four already settled.

LaBerge's private attorney, Lee Parks, has blamed Olens' office for failing to turn over documents that showed top aides to Gov. Nathan Deal texted and called LaBerge in 2012, a week before the commission was to consider complaints against the governor's 2010 campaign. Deal was later cleared of major charges.

Olens’ staff, meanwhile, has said LaBerge is at fault.

Also, investigations by the State Auditor’s Office and the state Inspector General are ongoing. The commission last year requested the auditor’s inquest, but commissioners on Tuesday expressed concern that it has not been completed.

“It’s just my personal opinion that I would like to see this occur sooner rather than later, given the events of the last six months,” said Commissioner Lawton Jordan, who was elected vice chairman Tuesday. “I’m disappointed we haven’t received this.”

After the meeting, LaBerge said she has no idea when the state probe will end and has little dialogue with the auditors.

“They will not communicate with me,” she said.

LaBerge said auditors have made unannounced visits to the commission’s offices, taking employees for hours of questioning or demanding lobbyist records without notice. Because they do not tell her, LaBerge said she does not know the last time auditors were in her office.

State Auditor Greg Griffin, in a statement to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said the Department of Audits and Accounts “is nearing the completion of its performance audit of the commission.”

Griffin said his office has “had ongoing contact with (LaBerge) and her representatives as recently as Aug. 8,” Griffin said. “Every effort is being made to be as thorough as possible in our review and to provide recommendation for improvement going forward.”