ATLANTA — It's been a tumultuous few years at the state ethics commission, which has been mired in staffing issues, lawsuits and allegations of outside influence.
Now that the commission has opted to avoid what could have been a lengthy court battle and settle with three former employees, a key question is whether the agency will finally begin to make progress on more than 100 cases that have remained opened for months and sometimes years. While the commission has met four times this year, most of those meetings were spent discussing personnel matters and pending lawsuits.
The commission hopes to jumpstart the process of resolving cases by hiring up to two staff attorneys in the next month or two. The commission has been without a staff attorney since January.
"As soon as the new staff attorneys are hired and up to speed, I think you can anticipate some movement on cases," Chairman Kevin Abernethy said this week.
There are also other changes ahead, with Abernethy's term set to expire July 1. On Friday, Atlanta lawyer Mary Paige Adams was named to fill his spot on the five-person board.
It's been a long 12 months at the commission since a series of depositions last summer rocked the agency. The depositions came in two lawsuits filed by the commission's former executive secretary, Stacey Kalberman, and her deputy, Sherry Streicker, who said they were retaliated against for investigating ethics complaints against Gov. Nathan Deal stemming from the 2010 campaign.
The two said Kalberman's salary was cut and Streicker's position eliminated as they were preparing to issue subpoenas in the Deal case. Commissioners had said those actions were the result of budgetary concerns, but a jury in April sided with Kalberman and awarded her $700,000 plus attorneys' fees.
This month, the commission announced it planned to settle with Streicker rather than go to trial and also planned to pay settlements to former staff attorney Elisabeth Murray-Obertein and former IT specialist John Hair for a total of just over $1.8 million. Murray-Obertein and Hair were both terminated and had made allegations against Kalberman's replacement, Holly LaBerge.
Murray-Obertein had claimed she was pressured to resolve the Deal complaints and had initially requested tens of thousands of dollars in fines. Deal was later cleared of major violations in the probe. Murray-Obertein also claimed LaBerge had said the governor "owes her" for taking care of his ethics complaints and had met frequently with the governor's chief of staff and office legal counsel to discuss the complaints.
Deal has said he was not involved in commission business, doesn't know LaBerge and doesn't owe her anything.
In his lawsuit, Hair claimed LaBerge ordered him to alter, hide and destroy documents related to the Deal investigation. LaBerge, through her attorney, has denied any wrongdoing.
Meanwhile, it remains unclear whether federal investigators remain interested in the ethics complaints against Deal. Late last year, federal prosecutors issued subpoenas for commission documents related to the Deal complaints but officials with the U.S. Attorney's Office have continued to decline to comment.
"It is beyond a bad soap opera, all the drama that has happened there," said William Perry with the government watchdog group, Common Cause of Georgia. "This seems like the kind of thing where heads should roll and the fact that none are is just baffling."
Perry's group has called for LaBerge's removal, but there hasn't been any indication the commissioners are considering a change. When asked about LaBerge's status, Abernethy said: "Holly is and remains the executive secretary."
Perry said the agency hasn't been auditing campaign filings as they are required to do and public officials haven't been able to resolve cases against them.
"A government agency that doesn't function loses all public confidence," Perry said. "When you have the same person managing a new staff attorney, we might get some cases closed but can anybody believe in the integrity of those investigations?"
No commission meetings are currently scheduled, although it's likely the board will convene to elect a new chair.
Abernethy, a partner with the law firm of Hall Booth Smith, said he's looking forward to spending more time working on high-profile court cases and hopes a discussion among state officials will result in positive reforms and more funding.
"I hope people look back and say I was a steady hand under some difficult circumstances that were largely outside of my control," Abernethy said. "I'd like to think the agency is being left in a posture where it's ripe to go back to work and ripe for some reform."
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