ATLANTA — The state ethics commission has settled for more than $1.8 million with three former employees alleging retaliation related to an investigation of Gov. Nathan Deal, bringing an end to what could have been a protracted court battle in a major election year.
The ethics commission has been mired in staffing issues, lawsuits and allegations of outside influence for more than a year. Deal, who is seeking re-election, has repeatedly denied any involvement with commission business and sought to distance himself from the controversy.
Meanwhile, it remains unclear whether federal investigators remain interested in the ethics complaints against Deal, which involved his 2010 campaign finance reports and personal financial disclosures. 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.
Commission Chairman Kevin Abernethy said Friday the commission decided to settle with the three former employees, two of whom had filed lawsuits while a third was expected to do so. The decision follows a jury verdict in April awarding $700,000 plus attorneys' fees to the commission's former executive secretary, Stacey Kalberman, who had argued in court that her pay was slashed and her deputy's position eliminated as they were preparing subpoenas in the Deal case.
"We are pleased to put these matters behind us and look forward to proceeding in a positive direction with the work of the commission," Abernethy told The Associated Press.
Under the terms, the commission's former deputy, Sherry Streicker, will receive $1 million, former IT specialist John Hair will receive $410,000 and former staff attorney Elisabeth Murray-Obertein will receive $477,500, according to Lauren Kane with the Attorney General's Office, which represented the commission in the lawsuits.
The commission has denied any wrongdoing, and Deal has said he was not involved in any of the commission's decisions or actions. Deal's spokesman Brian Robinson said Friday's announcement underscores the governor's call for reforming the commission.
"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," Robinson said in a statement.
During Kalberman's trial, attorneys for the commission argued Kalberman's salary was cut and Streicker's position eliminated due to budgetary reasons and had nothing to do with the subpoenas. Kalberman's attorney presented evidence that Kalberman's successor, Holly LaBerge, was contacted by someone in the governor's office asking if she'd be interested in the position before Kalberman was even told about her salary cut and before the job was publicly posted.
Murray-Obertein, the staff attorney who arrived after Kalberman and Streicker were no longer with the commission, testified at trial that she was under pressure to get the Deal case resolved. Deal was later cleared of major violations in the probe.
Commissioners in January terminated Murray-Obertein. While Murray-Obertein had yet to file a lawsuit, she was expected to also claim retaliation after providing sworn statements in which she alleged 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.
In his lawsuit, Hair, the former IT specialist, claimed LaBerge ordered him to alter, hide and destroy documents related to the Deal investigation.
Deal has said he doesn't know Laberge and doesn't owe her anything. LaBerge, through her attorney, has also denied any wrongdoing.
The troubles with the ethics commission have already become a campaign issue as Democrat Jason Carter looks to oust Deal in the fall. Deal has proposed an overhaul that would expand the commission and implement procedures that would remove any appearance of conflict. Carter, a state senator from Atlanta, has criticized Deal for failing to support earlier reform efforts and called for the commission's investigation of Deal to be reopened.
"As a taxpayer, I'm outraged, and as a citizen, I'm embarrassed," Carter said in a statement Friday. "I'm outraged that we're now on the hook for $3 million, and I'm embarrassed that this is happening in our state."