Gov. Nathan Deal’s opponents see the ethics questions swirling around his campaign as one of his biggest vulnerabilities — and voters are paying attention.
A statewide poll commissioned by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that a majority of Georgia voters are aware that former state ethics commission director Stacey Kalberman won a $700,000 judgment on her claim she was forced from her job for too vigorously investigating complaints against Deal.
Some 58 percent signaled they agreed with that jury verdict, and 71 percent believe Deal was involved. That may hint at why Deal is trying to turn questions about the state ethics commission into an opening to call for one of the broadest overhauls of the watchdog agency in Georgia history.
Deal’s embrace of a plan to bolster the beleaguered commission is seen as an attempt to neutralize questions about his office’s role in the agency’s struggles ahead of a competitive May 20 primary and a potential November matchup against Democrat Jason Carter. His opponents see it as a callous election-year change of heart.
For all the ethics rhetoric, though, Deal’s two opponents in the GOP primary know that he withstood similar questions four years ago. While former Dalton Mayor David Pennington and state School Superintendent John Barge vow more transparency, they talk as much about education and the economy. Deal has rarely mentioned the plan since unveiling it.
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Lawsuits and FBI inquiries
The governor has been plagued by ethics questions since an AJC report in 2009 showed that Deal, then a congressman, supported a plan to preserve a state vehicle inspection program that benefited his Gainesville salvage yard. The ensuing congressional investigation suggested Deal violated House rules, though he resigned from Congress before it was complete.
Deal amassed hefty legal fees to defend himself against the accusations, and the state ethics commission received a complaint he improperly used campaign funds to pay those bills. Another complaint claimed he paid an incorrect amount in air travel costs for the use of a private plane to a company that he had co-owned.
Kalberman, the ethics agency head charged with investigating the complaints, resigned in June 2011 after ethics commissioners cut her salary and eliminated her deputy’s job in what was presented as a cost-cutting move. She and others filed whistleblower claims, and last year federal prosecutors subpoenaed five current and former ethics staffers.
After Kalberman’s departure, the commission voted to dismiss major ethics charges against Deal, who agreed to pay $3,350 in fees for technical defects in his disclosure reports.
A Fulton County jury awarded Kalberman $700,000 in damages in April, and several jurors said after the verdict that they suspected Deal’s staff had a hand in her departure.
Audrey Johnson, a 35-year-old food services manager from Ellenwood, said she believes the governor was out to “destroy his opponents.”
“I’m not voting for anybody who has been seen in the same room as Nathan Deal. I just think he’s a crook,” said Johnson, who identifies herself as a black Republican. “The ethics scandal doesn’t help. And the people investigating his ethics are dropping like flies. That doesn’t sit well with me.”
Others say it’s too difficult to divine what happened behind the scenes. Catherine Sutherland, a 68-year-old from Savannah, compared the saga to a lawsuit accusing local chef Paula Deen of using racist language.
“I guess I just have mixed feelings about it,” Sutherland said. “I’m not denying she said the N-word because she admitted it, but the woman who filed the complaint stayed and worked for the company many, many years.”
Brian Robinson, a spokesman for the governor, said that “there’s understandably confusion on the issue even among the most informed.”
“The real story has never been fairly told. This was a personnel matter decided by a board that acted on its own. Neither the governor nor his office had anything to do with it,” Robinson said. “Those facts might come as a surprise to folks who followed the media coverage.”
Shortly after the jury’s April verdict in the Kalberman case, Deal unveiled an ethics overhaul that he conceded was “probably overdue.” For Deal, who had long said he wanted to leave broader changes up to lawmakers, it was a seismic shift.
The governor’s plan would replace the five-member ethics panel, which is now appointed by the governor and legislative leaders, with a 13-member group tapped by members of each branch of government. Deal also vowed better funding for the financially struggling agency, which now doesn’t even have an attorney on staff.
“It’s been an ineffective commission for a very long period of time,” Deal said. “Just recently I think we heard that they have not disposed of a single case in many, many months, which in my opinion is inexcusable.”
The reaction from his opponents was swift and full of outrage. They branded Deal’s plan an election-year conversion designed purely to inoculate the governor from ongoing ethics questions as more whistleblower complaints head to trial. They also rolled out their rival proposals that they said would be more transparent and effective.
Barge said he would tap a seven-person panel appointed by leaders from both parties designed to rob the governor’s office of any “direct political control” over the commission. Pennington supports a permanent funding mechanism to tie the ethics agency’s funding to a percentage of the state budget and take lawmakers out of the process.
Carter, too, savaged the governor for acting only after what he called an “ethics catastrophe” threatened his campaign. He said Deal failed to act on proposals to bolster the ethics commission “until he was caught with his hand in the cookie jar.”
An ethics flare?
The governor’s sudden ethics embrace is one of several recent moves seen by analysts as a way to put out potential fires before they flare up.
He sold his stake in that controversial salvage yard last year to Copart, a Texas-based company later revealed to be at the center of a costly tax dispute with the state. A shaky financial situation that plagued him during his 2010 run appears on the mend, as financial disclosures show he reduced his debts by $1.8 million.
And Deal’s staff, who helped engineer the hiring of former Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers to a cushy job last year at Georgia Public Broadcasting, also arranged his ouster last month after details on his outside work came to light.
Yet the biggest wild card may be the ongoing federal inquiries into the ethics commission. After the AJC reported in December that the ethics staffers were subpoenaed by a federal grand jury, Deal’s attorney said it had nothing to do with the governor. If that changes, analysts say the electoral landscape could shift, also.
“It’s really about whether the ethics issue blows up,” Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz said. “If there are more trials, if there are more verdicts, then suddenly Jason Carter has a much better chance of winning.”