Ethics commission ready to move forward, but obstacles remain

Georgia’s state ethics commission, scarred by years of scandal and legal drama, faces more change in the coming months — some good, some potentially disastrous.

One, possibly two, new staff attorneys should soon be hired, which will finally give the agency the ability to investigate cases and create new regulations to manage massive changes made to ethics law in the past two years.

That’s the good news. The bad news is the beleaguered commission still faces investigations by the state Department of Audits and the state inspector general as well as a potential federal investigation. Officials with the state agencies told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the inquiries are ongoing and neither has a known end date. While various commission employees received federal grand jury subpoenas to turn over records, it’s unclear whether the FBI or the U.S. Attorney’s Office is continuing to investigate.

Still, the state’s decision last week to settle the remaining lawsuits against the commission at least allows the watchdog agency to end a complicated chapter.

The state agreed to pay more than $1.8 million to three former employees who claimed they were unfairly fired over the past three years. Those settlements, to former deputy director Sherilyn Streicker, former staff attorney Elisabeth Murray-Obertein and former computer specialist John Hair, follow the $1.15 million payout to former director Stacey Kalberman, whom a jury ruled had been forced from office for vigorously investigating Gov. Nathan Deal’s 2010 campaign.

Among the coming changes is the looming departure of the commission’s chairman. Kevin Abernethy’s term ends July 1. The Senate’s Committee on Assignments, a panel of that chamber’s leaders, on Friday named Atlanta attorney Mary Paige Adams as Abernethy’s successor. Abernethy, also an Atlanta lawyer, has served since 2010; state law bars commissioners from serving more than one full term.

Abernethy told the AJC that the commission is ready to get on with its work, and he believes the board will be well equipped to do so. That’s key to the advice he said he would offer the next commission chairman.

“As long as we keep in mind the purpose of the agency, which is to serve the public and govern the political process and govern ourselves accordingly, the rest will take care of itself,” he said.

Not everyone is so optimistic.

“I’m highly skeptical,” said William Perry, director of the watchdog group Common Cause Georgia. Perry’s group has been an outspoken critic of the agency and its executive director, Holly LaBerge.

“There’s been talk of change in the structure and management and the way that agency functions since Ms. LaBerge has come on board,” Perry said. “It never quite seems to catch on or does what it’s supposed to do. Past attempts by this group haven’t exactly instilled a great deal of confidence.”

The work of the commission, formally known as the Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, has in many ways stalled. State law charges the commission with collecting reports from candidates, elected officials and lobbyists and enforcing state ethics laws.

But it has made little progress on any of its more than 150 open ethics cases in nearly a year. It has yet to release even the first draft of regulations involving lobbying legislation passed more than a year ago. And although the law requires the commission to inspect every campaign finance form submitted to it, the small office staff does not even attempt it.

Still, Perry said, hiring even one new attorney “would be a positive step.”

“But I still fear if the same director is there we’re still looking at the same mismanagement,” he said.

Perry said there can be no fresh start with LaBerge in the job. Common Cause board member Clint Murphy noted that two of the settled lawsuits, those involving Murray-Obertein and Hair, were directly related to LaBerge’s conduct and management.

“Nobody is going to want to work there,” Murphy said.

Abernethy last week said LaBerge will remain in the director’s office.

That’s a good thing, said state Rep. Joe Wilkinson, R-Atlanta. Wilkinson is chairman of the House Ethics Committee and has been a strong LaBerge supporter as well as an advocate for restoring to the commission the power to write regulations, known as rule-making authority. Lawmakers stripped the commission of that power in 2009 and gave it back in 2013.

“The first two cases had nothing to do with Holly,” Wilkinson said, referring to lawsuits filed by Kalberman and Streicker. “The other two, I would have done the exact same thing.”

Murray-Obertein was fired in January after she refused to take a Breathalyzer test after a Capitol police officer reported she smelled of alcohol at work. Hair claims he was fired after he refused LaBerge’s order to remove documents from commission files. LaBerge has said that never happened and Wilkinson believes her.

If anything, Wilkinson laments that only Kalberman’s case went to trial. He wanted the state to fight for the truth to come out, he said.

“I’m just very disappointed that the people of Georgia did not get to hear all the facts,” he said.

But, he added, he understands why the decision to settle was made, especially after a Fulton County jury ruled quickly in Kalberman’s favor.

Now, Wilkinson agrees with Abernethy: Get to work.

“The sooner we can move forward, the better,” he said. “I’m ready for the commission to assist me with some decisions and some rule-making. That’s where we need to go.”

In the long term, the commission’s structure could change dramatically. After the April jury verdict in Kalberman’s case, Deal called the commission “broken” and riddled with “confusion, dysfunction and inefficiency.” He has since promised to have his Senate liaison, state Sen. Charlie Bethel, R-Dalton, file legislation in 2015 to restructure the agency, increase the number of commissioners and change how it operates.

Abernethy, the outgoing chairman, said he is sure the commissioners will be on board with change.

“It is my anticipation that everyone currently on the board and who will be appointed to the board will advocate for reform,” he said. “I think we’re all solidly behind reform.”

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Staff writers Greg Bluestein and Chris Joyner contributed to this article.