State News

September 22, 2013

Ethics Commission independence questioned

The current director of the Georgia Ethics Commission said in a deposition that her predecessor warned her that the job is political.  

Former Ethics Commission director, Stacey Kalberman, and one of her deputies have sued the state, saying they were forced out of the agency for leading an investigation into Gov. Nathan Deal’s campaign.

The commission’s current director, Holly LaBerge, is accused of intervening in the investigation.

Current and former staffers have testified that LaBerge ordered the removal of documents from the case file and met with top Deal aides while the probe was ongoing. According to the testimony, LaBerge said Deal “owed her one” after she claimed to have made ethics complaints against him “go away.”

Her salary increased from $85,000 in 2011 to $100,000 by June — despite the agency saying it had to cut costs. Kalberman also absorbed a 30 percent pay cut before she resigned from her position.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Sunday that LaBerge said in the deposition that she was recruited to lead the commission by Deal’s office.

The commission was intended as an independent watchdog agency overseeing campaign finance and lobbying. It is supposed to hire its own director.

Deal has said he barely knows Kalberman, and has denied that she did him any favors.

Some say the claims raised in Kalberman’s lawsuit have called into question the commission’s ability to independently hold elected officials accountable.

During his deposition, Kalberman’s attorney asked the organization’s former chairman, Patrick Millsaps, whether a governor who is under investigation appointing commissioners poses a problem.

“It’s not just the governor,” Millsaps said. “You’ve got the governor, you’ve got the Senate and you’ve got the House and the legislative body that funds the thing. It’s a mess.” Millsaps left the commission in 2011 after LaBerge was hired.

Steve Murphy, a Georgia State University political scientist and former aide to House Speaker Tom Murphy, told the newspaper the commission isn’t designed to be independent.

“It never has been and it never will be. It’s inherent in the system,” he said.

Savannah State University political science professor Robert Smith is an expert on state ethics commissions and told the newspaper leaders should not be appointed to the oversight group by people they may have to investigate. Such appointments undermine the purpose of the commission, he said.

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