State to pay $1.8 million to settle ethics cases

The state of Georgia on Friday agreed to pay more than $1.8 million to settle two lawsuits against its ethics commission and one that had yet to be filed.

The decision to pay, and avoid trial, brings to nearly $3 million the cost to taxpayers to end a series of legal battles that have dogged the commission and Gov. Nathan Deal for two years.

In agreements signed Friday, former commission deputy director Sherilyn Streicker will be paid $1 million and the agency’s computer specialist, John Hair, will receive $410,000. Former commission attorney Elisabeth Murray-Obertein, who had threatened to sue, will receive $477,500.

The settlements come two months after a Fulton County jury awarded former commission director Stacey Kalberman $700,000 plus attorneys fees — $1.15 million in all — after a week-long trial.

The payments will come out of an insurance fund the state maintains with taxpayer dollars.

Attorney Kim Worth, who represented both Kalberman and Hair, said the verdict and the settlements end a painful period for the plaintiffs.

“Four families lives were turned upside down by the wrongful actions of people in power,” Worth said. “We hope that this serves as a wake-up call that the abuse of ethics cannot be tolerated. This waste of taxpayer funds should not happen again.”

The settlements cap a saga that began in May 2011 when Kalberman and Streicker asked ethics commissioners to approve subpoenas asking for records related to their investigation of Deal’s 2010 campaign. The investigation was based on a series of complaints that alleged Deal improperly used campaign funds to pay for attorney’s fees and the use of an airplane for campaigning.

Shortly after presenting the draft subpoenas, Kalberman was told her salary would be cut deeply and Streicker’s job eliminated. Both soon left the agency and filed separate lawsuits. The subpoenas were never issued and in 2012 the commission, under the leadership of Kalberman successor Holly LaBerge, cleared Deal of major violations. The governor agreed to pay $3,350 in fees for technical defects in campaign filings.

But, as the lawsuits inched their way forward, Murray-Obertein claimed in sworn testimony that LaBerge bragged that the governor “owed” her for scuttling the commission’s case against him. Hair, meanwhile, claimed that he was fired after he refused an order from LaBerge to alter or destroy commission records related to the Deal investigation and Kalberman’s lawsuit.

LaBerge has denied the accusations from Murray-Obertein and Hair. Deal has maintained that the lawsuits had nothing to do with him and that he did not know LaBerge, much less owe her anything.

Murray-Obertein was fired in January after a Capitol police officer reported that she smelled of alcohol at work.

Efforts to reach Murray-Obertein were unsuccessful.

Edward Buckley, whose law firm represented Murray-Obertein and Streicker, said in a statement that the settlement vindicates his clients’ rights under the Georgia Whiestleblower Act.

Streicker, was “working in good faith to protect the integrity of the election system in Georgia” when she was let go.

Murray-Obertein “was in the process of removing files from her computer pursuant to a subpoena from the FBI at the time she was told to leave her office,” the statement said. “The swirl of allegations disparaging her character that followed, were unfair and created unnecessary distress to her and her family.”

Hair also described the settlement as “vindication” for his actions.

His firing, he said, “was retaliation. It was to force me out of there for initially standing up and doing the right thing.”

Kevin Abernethy, chairman of the commission — formally known as the Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission — said the settlements will help the agency move on.

“We’re pleased to put these matters behind us and look forward to proceeding in a positive direction with the work of the commission,” Abernethy said.

In the years since Kalberman and Streicker left, the commission has been mired in intra-office scandal, and left with a depleted staff and lack of progress on cases even as new duties were piled on its plate. Now, LaBerge remains as director as other actors in the soap opera have been fired or left. That’s not changing, Abernethy said.

“Holly LaBerge is and remains the executive director of the agency,” he said.

The settlements might end the legal battles of the commission, but they are unlikely to end the political challenge for Deal, who faces re-election in November.

Deal was never accused of being personally involved in any of the alleged misdeeds, but his staff members played roles in the drama. His executive counsel, Ryan Teague, helped recruit LaBerge before Kalberman was forced from office. Teague and Chris Riley, the governor’s chief of staff, also met privately with LaBerge to discuss the ethics complaints against Deal.

Deal’s opponent, Sen. Jason Carter, D-Atlanta, has pounded Deal over the lawsuits and costs to the state.

After the Kalberman verdict, Deal labeled the ethics commission “ineffective” and called for a major restructuring of the board that would expand its membership, an overhaul he said was probably “overdue.” In May, Deal questioned whether state law should be changed to strip whisteblower protections from state employees who investigate other state agencies or workers.

Deal spokesman Brian Robinson on Friday did not back away from that idea and said the settlements show “once again the utter dysfunction of the campaign finance commission, which is supposed to enforce our campaign and lobbying laws in a quick and efficient manner. That’s not happening.”

Robinson said Deal has asked his Senate liaison, Sen. Charlie Bethel, R-Dalton, to sponsor legislation next year to implement the governor’s plan to revamp the commission.

Carter said the commission’s dysfunction is directly related to Deal’s allies’ efforts to quash the investigation.

“As a taxpayer, I’m outraged, and as a citizen, I’m embarrassed,” Carter said. “I’m outraged that we’re now on the hook for $3 million, and I’m embarrassed that this is happening in our state.”

Carter continues to question whether the original complaints against Deal were fully investigated once Kalberman and Streicker were gone and has called for the investigation to be re-opened.

It’s also ironic, Carter said, that Deal is now calling for changes to the commission.

“I fought in the state Senate for a strong and truly independent ethics commission,” Carter said. “Governor Deal and his allies have blocked this reform at every turn.”

Kennesaw State University political scientist Ralph Durham said settling the cases in June is better for Deal than having trials spread out through the fall. Still, the governor had better be ready for more of that kind of rhetoric from Carter and the Democrats.

“If I were in the Carter camp I’d be wanting to emphasize that this is a persistent cloud that follows Deal around,” Durham said. “He has just always sort of been hounded by accusations and can’t seem to get away from it.”

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Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed.