published Saturday, June 18th, 2011

Ethics chief targeted Nathan Deal campaign

ATLANTA—The director of Georgia’s ethics commission sought a subpoena against Gov. Nathan Deal’s campaign but the five-member panel declined to sign off.

Members of the commission would not explain on Friday why they did not approve the subpoenas sought by the panel’s executive secretary, Stacey Kalberman, at a May meeting. Deal’s lawyer, meanwhile, said the governor was cooperating fully with the investigation of three complaints filed last year against his campaign.

News of the subpoena request came amid upheaval at the ethics panel, which is charged with investigating campaign finance violations and registering lobbyists. On Friday, the commission met and voted to slash Kalberman’s salary by about 30 percent and eliminate the agency’s No. 2 position. Soon afterward, Kalberman announced that she would be leaving the agency.

Commission Chairman Patrick Millsaps, who was reappointed to the commission by Deal earlier this year, said the actions were driven by the agency’s budget crunch. State lawmakers have cut ethics commission funding by 42 percent since 2008.

But in a June 15 email obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Kalberman questioned the timing of the salary cut and noted her recent efforts to advance the agency’s investigation into ethics complaints against Deal.

“I do not believe it to be a coincidence that your increased concern with the budget coincides with my staff’s preparation and delivery to you for your signature the subpoenas related to the ongoing Nathan Deal investigation,” Kalberman wrote.

In the email, Kalberman also said the subpoenas had been reviewed and approved by the attorney general’s office and that the FBI had offered the use of its forensic accountant in the probe.

Kalberman made no mention of those allegations during Friday’s meeting. Following a one-hour closed session, Kalberman said she would stay on until a replacement is found.

“I have the greatest respect for the commission and the work that it does,” Kalberman said.

Her deputy, former prosecutor Sherilyn Streicker, will lose her $86,000-a-year job on June 30, the end of the fiscal year, leaving the already lean commission with a skeleton staff.

Deal’s attorney, Randy Evans, told The AP that Deal was cooperating fully with the ethics inquiry and questioned Kalberman’s motives.

“This is an enormous fabrication by a disgruntled employee that wants to create noise because she is a disgruntled employee,” Evans said. “I am disappointed we got dragged into this.”

Evans said Deal had nothing to do with the salary cut.

Files obtained through an open records request by The Associated Press show that the ethics commission staff was asked to give approval of a draft subpoena for the Deal campaign at a May 3 meeting. The scope of the subpoena was unclear.

The commission is investigating three complaints filed against Deal during last year’s campaign for governor.

One dealt with his use of campaign money to pay for legal fees related to a congressional ethics probe. Another dealt with his disclosure of aircraft use. The third concerned whether he accepted campaign contributions that exceeded state limits.

Streicker said the commissioners declined to sign off on the subpoena at the May 3 meeting.

Kalberman said Friday that it had been customary to have commission members sign off on subpoenas, although it is not required by law.

Asked about the subpoenas on Friday, Commissioner Kevin Abernathy, Josh Belinfante and Kent Alexander would not comment.

“It was not on the agenda,” was all Abernathy would say.

Millsaps, who participated in the meeting by phone, could not be reached for comment.

Kalberman’s attorney, H. Grady Thrasher, said the inquiries into the Deal campaign finance allegations will continue.

State lawmakers have chopped the ethics commission’s budget at the same time they have increased its responsibilities, requiring all local elected officials now to file campaign disclosures forms with the state, for example.

Commission members went out of their way to praise Kalberman’s work on Friday, even as they cut her salary. The commission voted to reduce the executive director’s salary from $120,000 to a maximum of $85,000.

Belinfante allowed that it would challenging to find a quality ethics choice given the commission’s budget challenges and the reduced salary.

“But I believe we will find someone to do the job,” he said.

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