State’s cost in ethics lawsuit climbs to $1.15 million


Nov. 2, 2010: Nathan Deal is elected governor.

January-May 2011: The top two staff members of the state ethics commission, executive director Stacey Kalberman and her deputy, Sherilyn Streicker, open an investigation into the Deal campaign. The two draw up subpoenas for Deal and others and prepare to serve them.

June 2011: Kalberman and Streicker are gone from their jobs. Streicker's job is eliminated. Kalberman's salary is cut deeply, and she resigns. The chairman of the ethics commission says he needed to cut costs.

June 2012: Kalberman and Streicker file separate whistleblower lawsuits against the state.

July 23, 2012: The state ethics commission clears Deal of major ethics violations while finding he made "technical defects" in personal financial and campaign finance reports. Deal agrees to pay fees totaling $3,350.

September 2013: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that two staff members of the state ethics commission accused Kalberman's successor, Holly LaBerge, of improperly intervening in the probe of Deal. In sworn testimony taken as part of Kalberman's and Streicker's whistleblower suits, one said LaBerge ordered him to destroy documents in Deal's file. Another said LaBerge bragged that Deal "owed" her for making his legal troubles go away. LaBerge denied those accusations in her own testimony. Deal also denied any wrongdoing.

April 4, 2014: A Fulton County jury awards $700,000 to Kalberman in her suit claiming she was forced out of her job for investigating Deal's campaign too vigorously.

Wednesday: The AJC reports that the final cost, with attorney fees, will be $1.15 million.

Digging deeper

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution began following the infighting, funding lapses and legal challenges plaguing the state’s ethics commission before the departure of chief Stacey Kalberman in June 2011 by reviewing documents and conducting interviews with staff.

Stacey Kalberman’s claim that she was forced from her job as head of the state ethics commission will cost the state a total of $1.15 million, according to documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

A Fulton County jury in April ruled that Kalberman was pushed out for investigating Nathan Deal’s 2010 campaign for governor and ordered the state to pay her $700,000 plus court costs and legal fees. The agreement signed Wednesday shows the total cost for the first time.

The final amount is nearly equal to the commission’s $1.35 million annual budget and will be paid by the Department of Administrative Services through its self-funded insurance program.

Under the terms, Kalberman is to receive $725,111.79, and the law firm Thrasher Liss & Smith will be paid $424,881.21.

Kalberman and her top deputy, Sherilyn Streicker, were investigating a series of complaints against Deal’s campaign and in May 2011 presented draft subpoenas for records from Deal’s campaign and others. Just weeks later, the subpoenas remained unsigned and Kalberman was told her salary would be cut deeply and Streicker’s job eliminated.

Under new leadership in 2012, Deal was cleared of the major charges against him and agreed to pay $3,350 in administrative fees for technical defects in his campaign disclosures.

The jury in Kalberman's case needed less than two hours to rule in her favor, rejecting the state's claim that a budget crisis and mismanagement required the personnel moves.

Kalberman attorney Kim Worth said the settlement closes a difficult chapter in Kalberman’s life.

“After we brought this case, political operatives accused her of being a disgruntled employee and looked to tarnish her reputation, forcing her to move out of state to find employment,” Worth said. “We are grateful that our fellow citizens serving on her jury saw the truth.”

A spokeswoman for Attorney General Sam Olens, whose office defended the commission in the suit, declined to comment.

The Kalberman case is one of three involving the commission and its Deal investigation that could be decided in the next several months — all before November’s election when Deal will next face voters.

Streicker’s whistleblower lawsuit is scheduled for trial in Fulton County in June. Former commission media specialist John Hair’s whistleblower case is tentatively scheduled for October.

Hair was hired by current commission director Holly LaBerge, who took over after Kalberman's departure. Hair claims LaBerge ordered him to alter and remove documents from the Deal investigative file and that he was fired when he refused.

LaBerge has denied the allegations.

Steve Anthony, who lectures on state politics at Georgia State University and served as chief of staff to longtime House Speaker Tom Murphy, said these cases will continue to give Deal heartburn if the results are similar.

“It will cause problems on a variety of fronts,” Anthony said. “It will make him have to respond to that and, space and time being what it is, it means he can’t respond to something else.”

It will also draw voters’ attention away from Deal’s own message and gives ammunition to Democratic gubernatorial nominee Jason Carter.

Anthony said he wouldn’t be surprised to see the state try to settle Streicker’s and Hair’s cases, or postpone them until after the election, “if the drumbeat keeps up and these things keep dribbling out.”

Kennesaw State University political scientist Kerwin Swint, a former GOP activist, agreed.

The cases "are like a storm cloud hanging over the Deal administration and the governor's campaign," Swint said. "The fact that more court action involving the state ethics commission and its gross mismanagement over the last three years is coming soon has to be unwelcome news to the governor's re-election team."