Olens turns down Carter’s call for probe of Georgia’s ethics commission

Democrat Jason Carter’s plea for an independent investigator to probe how Georgia’s ethics commission handled complaints against his November opponent, Gov. Nathan Deal, was rejected Friday by the state’s attorney general.

Republican Attorney General Sam Olens said two other investigations of the ethics commission are underway. He also said the law doesn’t give him the authority to tap an “independent” investigator; outside attorneys hired on a contract basis, he said, fall under his office’s oversight.

The ethics complaints Carter wants investigated are at the heart of a string of whistleblower lawsuits filed by former ethics agency employees who claim they were forced out or punished for too enthusiastically pursuing complaints against Deal. They involve allegations of misused campaign money stemming from the governor’s 2010 campaign.

The state recently settled with three of those employees, paying them a total of more than $1.8 million. That followed a $1.15 million settlement with the ethics commission’s former executive director, Stacey Kalberman, after a jury decided that she had been forced to leave her position for vigorously investigating the governor’s campaign.

Carter’s campaign has made an ethics overhaul a central issue, and it made a case in a letter this week that there was a compelling need to reopen the investigation. Deal’s campaign said the complaints have been thoroughly vetted, and the governor accused Carter of trying to score political points, calling it “one of the lowest forms of politics.”

In a letter to Carter, Olens criticized the gubernatorial candidate’s use of the letter as part of a fundraising appeal and said his office had “no interest in being used for political purposes.” He noted that the state auditor is investigating the agency and federal investigators are “presumably” probing the commission after five former and current employees received federal grand jury subpoenas.

“It would be counterproductive to interject the Department of Law into those pending investigations, particularly where the office has an ongoing statutory responsibility to provide legal representation to the Commission,” Olens wrote.

Carter’s campaign countered in a statement that it was disappointed with Olens’ decision and said the law made it “crystal clear” that his office could tap someone to investigate the agency.

“Georgia taxpayers should not have to rely on the FBI to hold their elected leaders accountable,” Carter spokesman Bryan Thomas said.