Georgia ethics chief quits during probe into his use of state computer

Stefan Ritter, a former senior assistant attorney general, has led the state’s ethics agency since 2015. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Stefan Ritter, a former senior assistant attorney general, has led the state’s ethics agency since 2015. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Georgia’s ethics commission accepted the resignation of its director, Stefan Ritter, on Friday about two months after he was accused of misusing his state computer on the job.

No interim replacement was made to fill his position.

Ritter, a former senior assistant attorney general who has been the commission's chief since 2015 and was credited with helping cut into the agency's massive backlog of cases following a period of scandal, called the allegations "untrue" in January when they first came to light.

But Commission Chairman Jake Evans said Ritter offered to resign partway through an investigation into complaints against him, a probe that began the first week of January. Evans refused to describe the allegations, and the state has withheld commission staff complaints filed against Ritter.

Evans said Ritter will be paid three months’ salary — about $45,000 — as part of a settlement with the commission. In exchange, Evans said, Ritter gave up his right to sue the commission after being forced out.

“I think this is a great result for both parties,” he said.

The agency, formally known as the Georgia Government Transparency & Campaign Finance Commission, is charged with collecting campaign finance, vendor gift and lobbying expenditure reports; registering lobbyists; issuing advisory opinions; and dispensing penalties for violations.

Ritter was an 18-year veteran of the Georgia Attorney General’s Office when he was unanimously chosen over three other candidates to lead the agency. He had previously been the commission’s counsel and was known as an expert on Georgia’s sunshine laws.

Ritter took control of the commission at a tumultuous time. The agency had been without an executive director for months after the firing of Holly LaBerge, who was sanctioned and fined for her role in a whistleblower lawsuit filed by her predecessor.

In 2015, a Fulton County jury found her predecessor, Stacey Kalberman, had been forced from her job for investigating the campaign of Gov. Nathan Deal, and it awarded her and her attorneys $1.15 million.

After years of inaction, a backlog of more than 150 cases was finally cleared in 2017 — just in time for the agency to handle a slew of new complaints filed by Georgia residents, watchdog groups and political adversaries.

The commission put off making any decisions on a series of complaints made during the 2018 campaign, not wanting to influence the elections. So 2019 is expected to be a heavy year for the panel.

“We’re absolutely going to continue to prosecute the cases which we believe have probable cause and have merit,” Evans said. “We are going to move forward on initiating that as promptly as we can, and we are going to reduce the adverse impact of this on the commission and the staff. “