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Taxpayers on hook for botched ethics probe of governor

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POSTED: July 23, 2014 4:00 p.m.
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Dick Yarbrough

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In 1997, then-Gov. Zell Miller appointed me to fill a vacant seat on the five-member State Ethics Commission and then reappointed me to a full term, in which I served until 2002.
It was a rewarding experience, and I am proud of the good things we accomplished at the commission.
Now, fast-forward to its successor, the Georgia Government Transparency and (inhale) Campaign Finance Committee. What a disaster.
The way this dysfunctional agency has handled — or mishandled — the investigation into Nathan Deal’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign has risen to the absurd. The result has been to turn a political molehill for now-Gov. Deal into a mountain of trouble that could have a negative impact on his re-election effort this November.
The wheels came off the tracks in 2011, when commission Director Stacey Kalberman and her top deputy, Sherilyn Streicker, drafted subpoenas for records regarding that case. After doing so, Kalberman was told by the commission that her salary was being cut by 30 percent and Streicker’s job was eliminated. No subpoenas were ever issued.
Kalberman filed a whistleblower suit, and a Fulton County jury awarded her $1.3 million. The state decided to settle potential lawsuits with other former staff members. Streicker received a $1 million settlement. One-time commission attorney Elisabeth Murray-Obertein got $477,500, and John Hair, a commission computer specialist, settled for $410,000.
That is $3 million that you and I as taxpayers will have to ante up. The Deal campaign agreed to pay a $3,350 fine in 2012. As usual, we the unwashed got the short end of the stick.
Kalberman’s replacement, Holly La-Berge, was accused of interfering in the Deal campaign probe by ordering documents removed from the investigative file. The dissident employees also charged that LaBerge bragged about her relationship with the governor’s office and reportedly said of Deal, “Now he owes me. I made this go away” — something both LaBerge and the governor’s aides deny.
End of the story? Not quite.
Last week, LaBerge declared herself a whistleblower. She released a memorandum she had sent to the attorney general’s office saying that both Ryan Teague, the governor’s attorney, and Chris Riley, Deal’s chief of staff, threatened her with retaliation if the commission didn’t produce a favorable verdict in the case.
She wrote the memo in 2012 on the day of her conversation with Teague, but didn’t turn it over to the attorney general’s office until a year later. Why? And why has it just now been made public? And where has AG Sam Olens been? Did someone put Clarabelle the Clown in charge and forget to tell me?
By the way, the governor’s office said nobody made threats. It only was trying to get some idea of whether the case would be settled before Deal left for Switzerland in case he had to write a check to cover any fine.
Hmm. It seems something got lost in that translation.
I thought back to how our group might have handled this mess. We likely would have told the governor’s office that there was no need to call us. We’ll call you. We would have assured Teague, Riley and the governor’s campaign mavens that we would be sure to let them know just as soon as we had arrived at a decision, and, in the meantime, to suggest the governor try the apfelküchlein while he was in Switzerland. It is delicious.
We studiously asserted our independence from the state politicos, thanks to our tenacious director, Teddy Lee, and a nice but no-nonsense chairman, attorney Mike McRae of Cedartown. When Roy Barnes was elected governor, his staff decreed that every state agency would file financial-disclosure forms. A noble goal, except that the State Ethics Commission was not a part of the governor’s administration. We were an independent agency. We said no. McRae stuck to his guns under much the same kind of pressure that seems to have flummoxed the current crowd.
We took a number of politicians to the woodshed for campaign violations during my tenure on the commission. The State Ethics Commission was not a beloved bunch, but our integrity was never questioned. Not once. The only whistleblowers we experienced were police officers outside directing traffic.
I am proud to have been a part of the State Ethics Commission when it worked as it was supposed to. And I am dismayed at the unfunny joke the Whatever-You-Call-It Commission has become.
You should be, too. This sorry episode already has cost you $3 million.
 
Contact Yarbrough at yarb2400@bellsouth.net; at P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, GA 31139; online at dickyarbrough.com; or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/dickyarb.

 

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