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Friday, June 6, 2014 - 12:00pm

Carter’s Election Bid May Hinge On Deal Ethics Cases

Jason Carter’s shot at becoming Georgia’s next governor could hinge on the fallout from a trio of ethics cases involving Republican governor Nathan Deal.

That’s according to experts on the heels of reports from the AJC and WSB that a former ethics commission employee is close to settling a whistleblower lawsuit against the state. The AJC says the state may award a $1 million settlement to Sherilyn Streicker, one of two people who brought lawsuits alleging they were forced from their jobs at the state’s ethics commission after seeking to subpoena Deal's 2010 election campaign records. A jury awarded in favor of another whistle-blower in April.

Emory university political science professor Alan Abramowitz says the outcome of the election could turn on how the cases turn out, and how long the matter lingers in the media and by extension in the voters’ minds. He also said there may be more to come; a third person has filed a whistle-blower lawsuit against the state in the matter and a federal investigation is pending.

Carter Calls For Re-Opening Investigation

“If that turns into a major election issue, then I think Jason Carter has a real chance at winning,” Abramowitz said. “If it doesn’t, I think it’s unlikely he will be able to win.”

Carter, the Democratic challenger, is a state Senator whom most polls show is trailing Deal.

Deal’s spokesman, Brian Robinson, said the Governor has nothing to do with the ethics cases and declined to comment further.

But Carter’s campaign, unsurprisingly, is looking to run with the news. Indeed, Carter is calling on the state to re-open an investigation into Deal’s re-election campaign.

“That investigation was never completed, those subpoenas were never issued, so that investigation should be re-opened,” Carter’s spokesman, Bryan Thomas. “And Gov. Deal should not be saddling the taxpayers with $2 million to pay for his cover-ups.”

One Whistle-blower Case Already Settled

The subpoenas referred to possible violations of campaign contribution limits, among other things. Thomas said Deal’s campaign should also foot the costs of any and all settlements.

It remains to be seen, however, whether the story has legs. Streiker’s settlement would be the second in whistle-blower cases involving Deal’s election campaign. An earlier case involving another employee, Stacey Kalberman, resulted in the state paying $1.3 million in settlement and legal fees when a jury ruled in her favor in April.

Even William Perry, who heads the watchdog group Common Cause Georgia, admits poll numbers suggest voters aren’t paying attention. But he says, if the state does settle with Streicker, it gives credence to what his group and others have said all along.

“This is further proof the scandal is real,” he said.

Is There A Smoking Gun?

Abramowitz with Emory says the ethics cases loom over the campaign because they are “the great unknown.”

“Is there a smoking gun?” he said. “What was going on with Deal’s campaign finances?”

But Deal remains a relatively popular incumbent governor in a state that remains staunchly Republican. And some political observers say it’s hard to imagine the ethics cases derailing Deal’s re-election.

“If you get all these lawsuits settled soon, it fades from view with the public,” said Tom Crawford who writes the Georgia Report, an online political digest. “Barring any striking new developments, I hold to the idea it’s a nuisance to the Deal campaign but I don’t see it as being fatal to his election chances.”

Following the Kalberman verdict, Deal called for changes to the ethics commission that would increase the number of people on the board and also add appointees from the state’s judicial branch.