By CHRISTINA A. CASSIDY, Associated Press
The state ethics commission decided Monday to ask for an independent investigator to look into the circumstances surrounding two lawsuits against the agency as well as personnel matters that one employee says has brought business to a halt.
The commission met via teleconference for a special emergency meeting that the commission’s staff attorney first found out about Monday morning. After nearly an hour of discussion closed to the public, the commission voted unanimously to request that a special assistant attorney general be appointed for an independent investigation.
It was not immediately clear whether Attorney General Sam Olens would be appointing the investigator. His office is currently defending the state ethics commission against a pair of lawsuits filed by the former executive secretary of the commission and her deputy, who allege retaliation for their work investigating ethics complaints filed against Gov. Nathan Deal.
Olens spokeswoman Lauren Kane declined to answer questions, saying the office had not yet received the request and could not comment. A phone call to Commission Chairman Kevin Abernethy was not returned.
The call for an outside investigation was welcomed by William Perry, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, a government watchdog group.
“We’re encouraged that there will be an independent investigation because that is what our organization has called for,” Perry said. “But it also brings up a lot of questions that we look forward to being answered, such as who will appoint the investigator, who will they report to and how will the process move forward from here.”
Commissioners did not say which lawsuits or personnel matters would be looked into by the investigator. Although, two high-profile lawsuits by former commission executive secretary Stacey Kalberman and her deputy Sherilyn Streicker are pending in Fulton County Superior Court.
Kalberman and Streicker filed lawsuits in June 2012, almost a year after the ethics commission decided to slash Kalberman’s salary by about 30 percent and eliminate Streicker’s position as they were seeking to gain approval from commissioners to issue subpoenas in the Deal investigation.
Eventually, Deal agreed to pay $3,350 in administrative fees to settle the ethics complaints, which centered on his personal financial and campaign finance reports.
Among those called to provide depositions in the two pending lawsuits are current commission Executive Secretary Holly LaBerge and Staff Attorney Elisabeth Murray-Obertein, who was hired by LaBerge. Recently, Murray-Obertein has aired concerns about LaBerge, saying LaBerge has on more than one occasion said the governor “owes her” for taking care of his ethics complaints.
That prompted a scathing response from Deal, who said he doesn’t know LaBerge and doesn’t owe her anything. LaBerge has declined to comment on the claims, citing the pending litigation. Her attorney, Michael Brown, said his client is happy the board has asked for an independent investigation and that he feels the probe will show LaBerge didn’t show favoritism to anyone.
Murray-Obertein said she initially recommended up to $70,000 in fines against Deal and thought a few of the cases needed further investigation.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported earlier this month that LaBerge, in her own deposition, said she was contacted by the governor’s office to see if she was interested in the executive secretary position before it was even posted. The commission is meant to be an independent watchdog agency overseeing campaign finance and lobbying and is charged with hiring its own chief.
Murray-Obertein also said LaBerge met more than once with the governor’s chief of staff and office legal counsel to discuss the ethics complaints, which stem from Deal’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign. Deal has said those meetings were to discuss efforts by state lawmakers to implement ethics reform.
Murray-Obertein said she was pleased with the decision for an independent investigation. She said the commission’s work to investigate ethics complaints has been slowed down by LaBerge and noted the commission has held only one meeting this year to hear complaints, which was in April. On Monday, the commission voted to cancel its October meeting.
Murray-Obertein said she has filed two human resources complaints against LaBerge, as well as a complaint with the State Bar of Georgia alleging the unlicensed practice of law.
“Things are pretty broken here with personnel issues, so how do we move forward?” Murray-Obertein said. “In April, I had 18 cases. Ever since Holly said she was taking over the micromanagement of my cases, I have gotten nothing done.”
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