Grand jury issues subpoenas in ethics commission case

AJC staff writer Greg Bluestein and Channel 2 Action News reporter Jodie Fleischer contributed to this article.

The FBI’s investigation into the state ethics commission took a step forward Wednesday when a federal grand jury subpoenaed five people at the center of the commission’s investigation into Gov. Nathan Deal’s 2010 campaign.

Commission attorney Elisabeth Murray-Obertein told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she and executive director Holly LaBerge were subpoenaed in the agency’s office. Former commission computer specialist John Hair also told the AJC he received a federal demand for documents. Another person with knowledge of the case, who was not authorized to discuss the investigation, said former commission executive director Stacey Kalberman and her top deputy, Sherilyn Streicker, were also subpoenaed for documents related to the Deal case. The FBI would not comment.

The AJC reported in October that the FBI was investigating the agency, formally known as the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission. The commission, charged with holding the state's elected officials accountable, has been embroiled in controversy related to the whistle-blower lawsuits Kalberman and Streicker filed. The pair claim they lost their jobs for investigating Deal's 2010 campaign.

LaBerge referred questions to her attorney, Mike Brown. Brown would neither confirm nor deny that his client was subpoenaed but said if she were, “she will cooperate fully.”

“She has nothing to hide,” Brown said.

Murray-Obertein would not comment beyond confirming the subpoenas.

Deal attorney Randy Evans said he was told that LaBerge and Murray-Obertein were issued subpoenas. He said they don’t “involve anything to do with the governor.”

Evans said he called for a full investigation after Hair, an ex-computer specialist at the commission, said he was ordered to remove or alter dozens of documents in the governor’s case file. The governor’s office has denied that any documents were removed or altered, and LaBerge testified that she did not interfere in the case.

“If documents were altered, modified or destroyed, an investigation is needed, and that’s what sounds like is happening,” Evans said. “It sounds like they are taking a look at the issue of whether documents were destroyed.”

Evans also said that the FBI hasn’t made any contact with the governor’s office, “nor do we expect anything.”

The AJC reported in September that current and former commission employees have alleged in sworn testimony that LaBerge ordered documents removed from the Deal file.

They also claim LaBerge bragged that Deal “owed” her for scuttling the case against him, which she has denied in sworn testimony.

Deal, who was accused of misusing campaign cash and accepting contributions over the legal limit, was cleared of major charges in 2012 and ordered to pay $3,350 in administrative fees for “technical defects.” Murray-Obertein had recommended a fine of $70,000.

The commission has asked the state auditor to investigate the allegations.

Murray-Obertein and Hair gave sworn testimony alleging the improper behavior in the Kalberman and Streicker lawsuits. Kalberman and Streicker were forced from their jobs in 2011.

Streicker’s job was eliminated, and Kalberman was told her pay would be cut 30 percent just weeks after they presented commissioners with draft subpoenas in the Deal case. Commissioners have testified that the cuts were necessary for budget reasons.

William Perry, executive director of the watchdog group Common Cause Georgia, who has followed the case, said the subpoenas are good news.

“This scandal has created a black cloud over our state government, so it will help the people of Georgia believe that it is being resolved outside of the governor’s office or by those who have been appointed or hired by the governor,” Perry said.

Both lawsuits have key hearings this month.