Four finalists revealed to run Georgia’s ethics commission

The finalists to be the next director of the state ethics commission are two top state lawyers, an economic development official and a court clerk, according to records obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The commission, formally known as the Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, chose these four out of a pool of more than 70 applicants. The finalists are:

  • Stefan Ritter, a senior assistant attorney general with deep knowledge of the commission’s work. He has supervised all ethics cases for the attorney general.
  • Heather Ramsey Ryfa, a former senior assistant attorney general who now serves as chief staff attorney for the Governor’s Office of Consumer Protection.
  • Cheston Roney, court administrator and clerk for the city of Sandy Springs’ Municipal Court.
  • Jeffrey Ledford, director of staff support for the Workforce Division of the Department of Economic Development. Ledford worked for the commission as a senior analyst from 1998 to 2004.

The commission has been without an executive director since September, when the board fired Holly LaBerge. LaBerge’s exit came after a Fulton County Superior Court judge sanctioned and fined her $10,000. Judge Ural Glanville said LaBerge had been “dishonest and nontransparent” over the course of a whistleblower lawsuit filed by her predecessor. LaBerge has appealed Glanville’s order.

It was not immediately clear how quickly the commission will move on hiring LaBerge’s replacement, although it will require a vote of the commission at a public meeting. The board’s next meeting is scheduled for June.

Commission Chairwoman Hillary Stringfellow said the pool of applicants was largely local — she estimated 90 percent of the resumes came from Georgia — and included many lawyers but also some nonlawyers with executive experience.

“We’ve been pleased with the quality of the applicants,” she said.

The commission has had lawyers and nonlawyers in the top position over the years. LaBerge was not a lawyer, and at times her grasp of the law was questioned.

Her predecessor, Stacey Kalberman, is an attorney, but that did not make her tenure any easier. In a whistleblower lawsuit, Kalberman said she was forced out of the position as a result of political pressure from Gov. Nathan Deal’s office.

Stringfellow, a lawyer herself, said she is not convinced the new director needs to be a lawyer. The successful candidate must be able to manage the commission’s staff and report effectively to the board — two things she said LaBerge did not do well.

Stringfellow said she also does not think the next director needs specific experience in campaign finance law, although the job was advertised with the Council on Governmental Ethics Laws, the national association for ethics commission executives.

The job was posted with a salary range of $85,000 to $105,000, not including a 3 percent raise in the upcoming fiscal 2016 budget.

The state budget also includes money for the commission to hire four attorneys and four investigators. The commission’s $2.6 million budget is nearly double its 2015 budget.

Stringfellow said a priority is keeping both current commission attorneys — Bethany Whetzel and Robert Lane — on staff.

“They are very good at what they do and they need to continue to do that,” she said.

Stringfellow said communication has improved dramatically between the commission’s staff and board members since LaBerge’s departure.

“Since September, the commissioners have been very engaged in the work of the commission in a way we were not allowed previously,” she said.

For the past seven months, Stringfellow has been handling the commission’s administrative functions, largely from her office in Brunswick. She said she is looking forward to hiring a director who can take over those tasks.

Douglas Chalmers, a lawyer who frequently represents clients before the commission, joked that the applicants for the position are “gluttons for punishment.”

He said the commission has run more smoothly in recent months, but not because of the absence of an executive director. He said the commission improved when it added Whetzel and Lane, a move that predated LaBerge’s firing.

“Those two lawyers know the law and they are trying to apply it consistently across the board,” he said. “That makes it easy for lawyers who are defending people before the commission.”

On the other hand, he said the commission still has a lot of work to do. For years, the commission’s work moved at a snail’s pace with the board more focused on fighting lawsuits from current and former employees than in regulating campaign finance or lobbying.

Last month, the board approved regulations to enforce the most recent amendments to the ethics law passed by the General Assembly two years ago. Even then, the board put off a final decision on some of the stickier provisions until it’s meeting in June.

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