Georgia taxpayers to pay more to defend state from ethics charges

Complete coverage

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has spent years following infighting, funding lapses and legal challenges plaguing the state’s ethics commission. To see an interactive timeline detailing that coverage, go to

The price tag to taxpayers to defend the state against ethics charges is going up.

Georgians have already spent nearly $3 million to settle claims that four former employees of the state ethics commission were improperly forced from their jobs. Now, the state will pay a pair of private attorneys $125 an hour to defend the commission and its executive director against charges that key evidence in one of the earlier lawsuits was improperly withheld.

The Department of Administrative Services has contracted with two Atlanta lawyers to represent ethics commission director Holly LaBerge and the agency itself. The move comes after Attorney General Sam Olens said his office could not defend itself and LaBerge and the commission against the same allegations.

Former ethics commission director Stacey Kalberman has asked a Fulton County judge to fine and sanction Olens’ office, LaBerge and the commission for failing to turn over documents that showed top aides to Gov. Nathan Deal called and texted LaBerge in the week before the commission acted on a series of complaints against Deal’s 2010 campaign, clearing him of major violations. The governor paid $3,350 for technical defects in his campaign disclosures.

Kalberman in April won a $700,000 verdict, plus $450,000 in back pay and attorneys fees, in a whistleblower lawsuit that claimed she was forced from office for investigating Deal too aggressively. The state settled the three other whistleblower claims for $1.8 million.

Kalberman’s attorney, Kim Worth, said in court filings that it’s unclear who was responsible for the failure to provide her client with the documents. But, Worth said, allowing it to go unpunished would set a precedent for future defendants to hide evidence damaging to their case.

Now, the state has hired George Weaver to represent LaBerge and Alisa Cleek to represent the commission, which is formally known as the Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission. In addition to the $125 an hour paid to each attorney, an additional $50 will be provided for their paralegals.

While that hourly rate is considered low for private attorneys, their cost adds to an already steep bill for the state.

Meanwhile, Olens’ office on Friday said LaBerge alone is responsible for failing to turn over the records in question.

“The Department of Law should not be held responsible for the litigation choices of its opponents or the alleged discovery violations of its clients,” Edward Lindsey, acting as attorney for Olens’ office, said in court papers filed Friday.

Lindsey is a former member of the state House leadership who ran unsuccessfully for Congress this year and is leaving his seat in the Legislature. He is representing Olens’ office for free.

Efforts to reach Weaver, LaBerge’s attorney, were unsuccessful.

In response to the motion for sanctions, Lindsey said Olens’ staff acted accordingly.

Senior Assistant Attorney General Bryan Webb, who defended the commission in Kalberman’s lawsuit, said in a sworn affidavit filed Friday that he did not know LaBerge had copies of texts from Deal Chief of Staff Chris Riley and chief counsel Ryan Teague.

“Ms. LaBerge did not turn over to her attorneys all requested documents in this case despite instructions to do so,” Lindsey wrote.

If she had, Lindsey wrote, they would have been given to Kalberman’s attorneys.

Webb also says that LaBerge purposely kept a memo detailing her interaction with Riley and Teague out of the public eye. The memo, in which LaBerge described feeling pressured by Riley and Teague, was written in July 2012 but not revealed until last month.

“LaBerge told me that after she wrote the account, she housed the document in a place outside of the official file,” Webb wrote. “I recall her gesturing as if she took the document and put it off to the side on a shelf. LaBerge told me that it was not part of the official commission file.”

The memo references the text messages themselves, but Webb said he never asked LaBerge for copies of them.

“I did not inquire whether there were copies of those texts,” Webb said. “I had previously been told by LaBerge that I had been given everything that was responsive to the discovery requests and to the agreement between counsel for work-related documents sent or received from her private email account.”