The state has settled whistle-blower complaints by three former ethics commission employees for a total of $1.8 million, potentially bringing to a close at least for now a controversial chapter in recent Georgia politics.
The three settlements follow a jury verdict that awarded more than $1 million to a fourth employee, former executive secretary of the state ethics commission Stacey Kalberman. She said she was pushed out of her job because she was investigating potential wrong-doing in Gov. Nathan Deal’s 2010 election campaign.
According to the settlements released by Attorney General Sam Olens, the state will pay $1 million to the commission's former deputy, Sherry Streicker, $410,000 to former IT specialist John Hair and $477,500 to former staff attorney Elisabeth Murray-Obertein.
Impact On Deal Could Be Minimal
With the four cases squared away relatively early in the gubernatorial campaign, some political experts predict the damage to Deal’s re-election chances could be minimal. Poll numbers, for example, suggest voters aren’t paying attention.
“The American voting public has a very short attention span and a very short memory, especially on something like this that’s really more of a technical legality," said Tom Crawford of The Georgia Report, an online political digest. “The important thing for Deal’s re-election campaign is that he doesn’t have to look over his shoulder and wonder when a trial may be starting in Fulton County.”
Deal’s spokesman, Brian Robinson, has said the Governor had nothing to do with the ethics cases. In a statement Friday he said, “Today’s settlement marks an agreement between the campaign finance commissioners, the attorney general’s office and former state employees. Whatever the merits of the cases, today’s settlement shows 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.”
Did Deal Violate Campaign Finance Laws?
In her lawsuit, Kalberman said the aborted investigation had uncovered “troubling irregularities” with Deal’s campaign financial disclosures. She believed Deal had “possibly violated campaign contribution limits on many occasions.”
In an email, Robinson called her statements “baseless” and said they have been disproven repeatedly.
“Every document in the file has been open to the public and zealously analyzed by lawyers, political opponents, members of the media and the commission members, and absolutely no one can point to a broken law or broken rule,” he wrote. “We’ve been completely transparent, and turned over more documents than any campaign in Georgia history.”
Jason Carter, Deal’s Democratic challenger, has called for reopening the investigation, in part because the subpoenas Kalberman sought were never issued.
Carter: Taxpayers On Hook For $3 Million
The state Senator has also said taxpayers should not have to foot the bill for $3 million in court settlements.
“As a taxpayer, I’m outraged, and as a citizen, I’m embarrassed,” Carter said in a statement. “I’m outraged that we’re now on the hook for $3 million, and I’m embarrassed that this is happening in our state. Taxpayers deserve to know what Gov. Deal’s campaign did that they are working so hard to hide from the public.”
In an interview, Carter said the state settled these cases because it likely feared juries would reach the same verdict as in the Kalberman case. And that suggests there was something to hide.
Some political experts say how the ethics cases play out could affect Carter’s chances of becoming Georgia’s next Governor.
Emory university political science professor Alan Abramowitz says if the news of the ethics case settlements lingers, it could become a major election issue, which would favor Carter.
In the meantime, watchdog groups such as Common Cause Georgia are calling for Deal to shoulder the costs of the settlements. And they say a new investigation needs to get underway since the original charges have never been refuted by a court of law.
More Accountability Needed
“It would be a different story if there had not been a trial that decided yes the Governor’s campaign interfered with an investigation and led to the firing of two people,” said William Perry with Common Cause. “The public has to demand greater accountability from our Governor and this commission. Someone has to step up. Three million dollars in taxpayer money being paid out because of an interference with an investigation into the Governor’s campaign. It’s just wrong.”
Perry said for better or for worse, the public may have to wait for the outcome of a federal investigation into the matter to learn more.