Ethics Commission: We’re back on track

After nearly 18 months of dysfunction, internal bickering and a series of lawsuits, the state ethics commission on Tuesday said 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. The pair, hired in July, have also prepared proposed changes to the agency’s regulations.

“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 charges that they, along with the Attorney General’s Office, improperly withheld evidence in the lawsuit brought by former commission director Stacey Kalberman. Kalberman, whose lawsuit was one of the four already settled, has asked a Fulton County judge to levy additional fines.

LaBerge’s private attorney, Lee Parks, has blamed Attorney General Sam 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.