Georgia governor suggests need for limits on whistleblower status

Gov. Nathan Deal said Tuesday that he would explore legislation that would limit who could file whistleblower complaints, a response to what he called the “very high” court judgment in an ethics lawsuit involving his 2010 campaign.

Deal said a $1.15 million award granted to the former head of the state watchdog agency renewed his concerns about a recent Georgia Supreme Court ruling that seemingly cleared the way for more complaints. He said he’s worried that it automatically granted state employees charged with conducting investigations with “whistleblower” protections if they bring a lawsuit.

“If by that job description we’ve automatically made them whistleblowers, then that’s something that ought to be investigated as well,” said Deal, who added that he wanted to have a “discussion” with lawmakers about narrowing the definition.

A judge signed off on an order last week requiring the state to pay more than $1 million for the case won by Stacey Kalberman, the former ethics chief who claimed she was forced from office because she too vigorously investigated complaints involving Deal’s 2010 campaign.

Deal did not elaborate on his remarks, but an aide said that tightening the definition of whistleblower could be included in a broader overhaul of the ethics agency that the governor unveiled shortly after the Kalberman verdict in April. One possibility could be excluding more state employees from bringing these complaints.

The governor has long said his office has kept the ethics agency at arm’s length and that he had nothing to do with the agency’s internal decisions. Yet questions about that inquiry continue to swirl around his re-election campaign. An AJC poll this month showed that most voters were aware of the accusations, and many agreed with the jury’s findings.

Two lawsuits brought by other former ethics staffers, Sherilyn Streicker and John Hair, could go to trial by November. And federal investigators have questioned former ethics employees and subpoenaed their documents, though the scope and target of their questions are not clear.

Deal’s attorney has said he is confident the governor and his staff are not the target. Deal and his top aides recently interviewed a federal prosecutor who specializes in investigating government fraud for a Gwinnett judgeship, which his aides see as a definitive sign that he isn’t in the cross hairs of a federal inquiry.

State Sen. Jason Carter, Deal’s Democratic opponent in November, has tried to seize on the ethics questions to gain traction for his campaign. Carter said Tuesday that the Kalberman verdict was proof the ethics law was working and that any changes to the definition of a whistleblower would inevitably lead to more “cover-ups and corruption.”

“The key to avoiding this type of settlement is less misconduct — not fewer whistleblowers,” he said.

Some top state officials are steering clear of the fight. Attorney General Sam Olens said Tuesday that he would leave it to the governor and state lawmakers to “make whatever changes are appropriate in that area.”

Whistleblower attorneys worry that changing the definition could create a chilling effect. Jay Sadd, whose Atlanta practice focuses on these types of claims, warned that restricting public employees and investigators from filing these types of complaints would “thwart the very purpose of the law.”

“I suppose it could make sense to exclude investigators from obtaining whistleblower status for the work they are already hired to do,” he said. “But when the investigator herself is actually retaliated upon, I see no reason why the law should be changed to exclude her from making the claim.”

Kalberman said in a statement that she wasn’t surprised by Deal’s remarks, which came after a press conference on a new initiative seeking to protect children.

“Taking away the whistleblower protection from those who investigate on behalf of the state, if anything, leaves those individuals who are charged with investigations in greater fear of being retaliated against for simply performing their jobs,” she said.

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