Judge questions why ethics memo wasn’t turned over

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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 MyAJC.com.

Fulton County Judge Ural Glanville blistered state attorneys Monday for withholding key evidence in a whistleblower lawsuit against the state ethics commission.

Glanville said the decision to not turn over that evidence — a memo in which current ethics commission director Holly LaBerge describes feeling pressured by top aides to Gov. Nathan Deal while the agency was considering complaints against Deal’s campaign — erodes the public’s confidence.

“The harm is public confidence is lost,” Glanville said during a nearly four-hour hearing. “If you don’t hold people accountable, then the next person says I can get away with that.

“To this extent, it really is important. Transparency, the lack of transparency is the harm.”

Glanville said he will issue a ruling by the end of the week on a motion filed by former commission director Stacey Kalberman. Kalberman, who won a $700,000 jury verdict in April, plus $450,000 in back pay and attorneys fees, asked Glanville to sanction LaBerge, the commission itself and the Attorney General’s Office.

The hearing was remarkable, as none of the parties knew exactly what to expect. Ultimately, Glanville heard arguments from all sides and heard sworn testimony from LaBerge and Senior Assistant Attorney General Bryan Webb. Webb defended LaBerge and the commission from the lawsuit in which Kalberman claimed she was forced out of her job for investigating Deal too aggressively.

Kalberman attorney Kim Worth worked to connect the dots for Glanville. It started with the July 17, 2012, memo that LaBerge wrote after she was contacted by Deal Chief of Staff Chris Riley and executive counsel Ryan Teague in the week before the ethics commission cleared Deal of major violations. The memo describes text messages from both men, texts she also forwarded to her private email account.

Had the memo been turned over during Kalberman’s case, Worth said, she would have learned about the texts and the private emails. Had she gotten the private emails, she would have learned that Deal signed a letter of recommendation for LaBerge’s application to Leadership Georgia.

That, Worth said, would have led her to getting Deal to testify in the Kalberman case.

“I would have deposed the governor, and you would have let me,” Worth told the judge.

Instead, Glanville in March refused to force Deal to testify at trial because Worth had not proved any direct connection between the governor and LaBerge. The texts and emails would have changed that, Worth said.

In her testimony, LaBerge broke new ground on several points. Among them:

  • She repeated that former commission Chairman Kevin Abernethy directed her to write the memo after she was contacted by Riley and Teague. On Monday, however, she said Abernethy told her to write the memo and then "put it in a folder in the back of a locked drawer and forget about it."
  • Under questioning from Glanville, LaBerge said she wrote the memo as protection. The agency was trying to regain its ability to write its own rules and regulations. Teague, she said, threatened to kill legislation giving it that power if she didn't make the Deal complaints "go away."

The memo, she testified, would help if the “governor stonewalled” the legislation.

“It was for the purpose of insurance?” Glanville asked.

“For lack of a better term, yes, it was for insurance to protect my agency,” LaBerge responded.

  • LaBerge also claimed that she did not give Webb the texts and emails to her private account because Webb told her to search her email only for the names of current and former commissioners and current and former commission employees. Webb testified that he in no way limited her search, except that he asked for all "work-related" emails in her personal account.

Webb said he and his bosses determined the memo did not have to be turned over to Kalberman’s attorneys, a point Glanville questioned. But the memo also references the texts and emails LaBerge sent to her private email. Did you ask for those? Glanville asked.

“I did not,” Webb said. “At the time I received the memo I had been told I’d gotten everything.”