Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jason Carter is renewing calls on the state Attorney General to investigate whistleblower complaints that involve Republican Governor Nathan Deal filed by ethics commission workers.
This comes in the light of new allegations by the ethics commission head, Holly LaBerge, that Gov. Deal’s staff pressured her to make the complaints go away. The employees said they were retaliated against for looking into Deal’s 2010 election campaign finance records. The state is paying $3 million in settlement fees to four former ethics commission employees.
In a memo that emerged this week under an open records request, LaBerge said that Chris Riley, Gov. Deal’s chief of staff, and Ryan Teague, his attorney, encouraged her to settle the cases quickly.
Carter, a state Senator, says it’s time for Attorney General Sam Olens to do something.
Olens Should Investigate -- If He Isn't 'Compromised'
“We have no one that’s willing to apparently investigate the governor’s office and what is clear misconduct at a minimum and probably illegal conduct on the part of his staff,” Carter told reporters. “If the Attorney General is so compromised given what we’ve now found out that he doesn’t feel comfortable with his office doing it, he has the ability to appoint an independent person to conduct the investigation.”
Olens, also a Republican, says he won’t intervene now because the Georgia Department of Audits and the FBI are already conducting investigations.
A statement from his spokeswoman, Lauren Kane, reads: “It would be counterproductive to interject the Department of Law into those pending investigations, particularly where the office has an ongoing statutory responsibility to provide legal representation to the Ethics Commission.”
Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz says the scandal is "a ticking time bomb" that could undermine Deal’s re-election campaign. That’s because he says it begs the question: what did the Governor know about this?
What Did Deal Know?
“What was going on?” he said in an interview. “It’s a little hard to believe that Gov. Deal, who is a pretty hands-on manager, didn’t know what his top aides were doing about this.”
Abramowitz also said the scandal reminds him of BridgeGate, which ensnared New Jersey’s Republican Governor, Chris Christie. Christie’s top aides orchestrated a traffic jam in the district of one of his foes, and then covered it up.
“Because it, again, involves the relationship between a Governor and his top aides,” he said.
But Charles Bullock, a political scientist with the University of Georgia, said Deal still has "plausible deniability" because the scandal has so far not reached him. The memo alleges interference on the part of his aides, not Deal. And he said the nature of the potential offenses mitigate against a big impact on the election.
"Campaign finance doesn't get a lot of voters exorcised," he said.
It’s been a tough year for the ethics commission, also known as the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission. Its former executive secretary, Stacey Kalberman, was awarded more than $1 million by a jury because she said she was pushed out of her job because she was investigating potential wrong-doing in Deal’s election campaign.
Campaign Finance At Heart Of Cases
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 interview with GPB-TV’s On The Story last month, she said the Governor and the Speaker of the House appoint members of the state ethics commission, and that’s like asking the fox to guard the hen house.
“The people who choose the people on the ethics commission are those same people that are regulated,” she said.
Three other complaints were quickly settled following her verdict. According to the settlements released by Attorney General Olens last month, the state is pay $1 million to the commission's former deputy, Sherry Streicker, $410,000 to former IT specialist John Hair and former staff attorney Elisabeth Murray-Obertein will receive $477,500.
Georgians Should Be 'Mad'
“If that doesn’t make Georgians mad, I don’t know what would,” Kalberman told GPB, about the verdicts.
Deal’s spokesman, Brian Robinson, has said the Governor had nothing to do with the ethics cases.
In a statement he released, Robinson said "The governor’s staff contacted Holly LaBerge at the request of the campaign’s attorneys to ask her to return their phone calls and respond to their questions. Ryan Teague is a member of the governor’s legal team and Chris Riley was inquiring for logistical purposes. The Deal team faced a time crunch because the Deal for Governor hearing was scheduled for the next week. The case had dragged on for two-plus years, and we wanted to move forward. This was the week before two big cases for the commission, one involving DFG and one involving Democrat nominee Roy Barnes."
Deal’s campaign also released a statement that reads in part, “Better Georgia (bankrolled by former Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes), and activist groups aligned with Jason Carter have tried to make an election year issue out of the troubles at the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission.”
Carter has been able to make political hay from the ethics cases. But he said the state wouldn’t have settled the cases if there was nothing there.
“You settle because you think a jury will reach the same conclusion as the previous jury,” he said.
He said the taxpayers are “on the hook for $3 million,” and he says that’s a problem.