ATLANTA - Jurors awarded the former director of Georgia's ethics commission $700,000 on Friday, ruling in her favor in a lawsuit in which she said her salary was cut and a deputy removed for investigating complaints against Gov. Nathan Deal.
The jury ruled in favor of Stacey Kalberman after more than two hours of deliberation, also deciding she would receive attorney's fees and back pay.
"I'm relieved. I've honestly and truly believed what happened to me was wrong," Kalberman said after the verdict. "I'm very thankful that our justice system permits this."
Kalberman claimed in her suit against the commission and its current director that commissioners had slashed her salary and eliminated her deputy's position as they sought approval to issue subpoenas as part of the agency's investigation into Deal's 2010 campaign reports and financial disclosures.
The state argued that the personnel actions were motivated by budget concerns.
The Republican governor was later cleared of major violations in the ethics probe and agreed to pay $3,350 in administrative fees. His political opponents seized on Friday's verdict to raise questions about Deal as he runs for re-election this year.
Deal's spokesman Brian Robinson said the ethics commission operates independently of elected officials and that the lawsuit involved "an internal dispute between former employees and former commissioners."
Separately, the attorney general's office declined to comment, citing other pending lawsuits filed by Kalberman's former deputy, Sherilyn Streicker, and a former IT specialist for the commission.
Kalberman's attorneys argued throughout the trial that the commissioners began moving to push their client out after a May 3, 2011, commission meeting because she had presented them with draft subpoenas in the Deal investigation. Kalberman was told during a meeting just over a month later that her salary would be cut by about a third and her deputy's position eliminated.
Former commissioners who testified at the trial said they were concerned about the state of the agency's budget after the May meeting and were taken aback when she asked for a raise for herself and some members of her staff in the executive session following the meeting.
Holly LaBerge, who succeeded Kalberman as director of the commission and still holds that position, testified during the trial that she was contacted by someone in the governor's office in mid-May 2011 asking if she'd be interested in the commission director job and was later contacted by commissioners. All of that happened before Kalberman had been told about her salary cut and before the job was publicly posted.
After the verdict, members of the jury met Kalberman in the courthouse hallway and hugged her. "That was the best part of the whole proceeding. They all came out and hugged me," Kalberman said.
Jury forewoman Allison Pecquet said the jury was completely unanimous in their thinking.
"It was Millsaps, when he told her not to say anything about the Deal investigation," Pecquet said.
Kalberman had testified that when she told then-commission chairman Patrick Millsaps the details of the investigation and that federal authorities had been interested, he became agitated and told her not to tell anyone about it.
Another juror, Kurt Pinniger, said he didn't understand why the state didn't settle the case out of court.
Pecquet said the jury also found LaBerge unconvincing and robotic. LaBerge testified that she didn't remember who in the governor's office had called her to talk about the job, which Pecquet said was "laughable."
Robinson noted that no member of the governor's staff was called to testify during the trial and Deal was cleared of major ethics violations by the commission after "the most exhaustive review of such a case in Georgia history."
"Those decisions are rendered by the commission members, not commission staff, after exhaustive study," Robinson said. "As such, who the commission employed as staff had no relevance to the Deal for Governor case."
Deal's political opponents dismissed claims the governor was not involved and argued it raised more questions about his ethics.
"This whistleblower trial opened a new window into the unethical culture of Gov. Deal's administration," said Democrat Jason Carter, a state senator running for governor and grandson of former President Jimmy Carter.
"We need leaders we can trust to put Georgia citizens ahead of their own personal gain, and we need an ethics commission that is free to do its job without fear of this sort of politically motivated retaliation," Carter said.
Former Dalton Mayor David Pennington, who is running against Deal in the GOP primary, used the verdict to argue he would be the best candidate to beat Carter in the general election.
"Nathan Deal's abuses of power, ethics flaws, and strong arm, good-old boy politics no longer have a place in our state," Pennington said in a statement. "If we, Republicans, actually want to defeat Jason Carter this November, we must ensure an ethical conservative is on the top of the ticket."
State schools Superintendent John Barge, who is also challenging Deal in the GOP primary, dismissed claims the governor wasn't involved and called for him withdraw from the race.
"The governor is in the middle of all this mess," Barge said. "It is time for the governor to step aside, settle for one term and let us get Georgia back on track."
Kalberman's lawsuit was the first to go to trial of three whistleblower suits filed in the wake of the 2011 shake-up at the ethics commission. Streicker has also filed a suit alleging retaliation. And former IT specialist John Hair filed a suit saying LaBerge ordered him to alter, hide and destroy documents related to the Deal investigation.