Deal Denies Involvement in Ethics Case, Dismisses Conflict-of-Interest Claims
Gov. Nathan Deal is facing fresh questions about his role in an ongoing saga at the state ethics commission.
Friday, a jury awarded former commission chief Stacey Kalberman more than $700,000 for wrongful termination. Kalberman alleged she and her top deputy were forced out because they were investigating Deal’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign.
Deal said Sunday he has nothing to hide and dismissed a wave of criticism from his political opponents.
Deal said Friday in a written statement he nor his staff members were called to testify in Kalberman’s case for a reason – his office isn’t involved.
Deal declined to expand on that during his first public appearance since the verdict was announced.
"My office has issued a statement on it. I don’t have any further comment on it," said Deal, speaking after a bill signing ceremony in Macon Sunday morning.
He also didn’t say whether Kalberman’s replacement, Holly LaBerge, should step down.
"I’m not going to comment on that. The ethics commission is independent of any of the other parts of state government and the commissioners themselves are the ones that make all those decisions."
Notably, Deal appoints three of the five commission board members.
Kalberman's trial highlighted several controversial allegations related to the governor.
According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Deal’s general counsel, Ryan Teague, reached out to Laberge in 2010 to gauge her interest in Kalberman's job. That was while Kalberman was still heading the commission and the ethics investigation against Deal was ongoing.
After Kalberman was replaced, former co-workers of Laberge say she bragged that Deal “owed her” for helping settle his case with only a minor fine.
Deal denied any relationship with Laberge and said Teague had nothing to do with the Kalberman case.
"I don’t discuss communications with my lawyer and I don’t think anyone else should try to ask that we do so. He is counsel for the governor’s office. He does an excellent job for me and we’ve already made clear that we had no involvement in any of this and I think he’s made that clear as well."
But Patrick Millsaps, the board chair of the ethics commission at the time of the leadership change, testified during Kalberman's trial that if Deal’s attorney reached out to Laberge while the ethics investigation was ongoing, it wouldn’t “pass the smell test.”
Deal declined comment on what Millsaps said in court.
“I don’t know. I didn’t hear his testimony.”
Deal’s political opponents have seized on the case, claiming abuse of power and conflict of interest. State Superintendent John Barge, a fellow Republican vying for the governor’s office, went so far as to call on Deal to end his campaign.
Deal dismissed the criticism.
"I think the people of this state when they vote in the primary on May the 20th will respond to them appropriately. I would simply point out that any ethics allegations against me were resolved about two years ago and there were findings that there were no violations, that the only things were technical violations."
While Deal appoints the majority of the ethics commission board, he didn’t respond directly to calls from government watchdogs for more independence at the commission.
"There was legislation that was in the General Assembly this year. It did not pass. Some of the suggestions were contained in some of those proposals." said Deal. "I think the thing that I would ask and I think this is something that’s been needed for quite awhile is for them to exercise the authority the General Assembly gave them a year ago to promulgate rules and regulations."
He said candidates running for office need more clarity from the commission.
"It is rules and regulations that will answer questions that candidates have with regard to what they can spend their campaign funds on [and] how do you calculate an appropriate expenditure," said Deal. "In the absence of that, it has been judgment after the fact that somebody spent it for an improper amount or for an improper purpose. The power to promulgate rules and regulations in a more full fashion needs to be exercised by the commission."
Meanwhile, two other former commission employees claiming similar allegations as Kalberman await their own trials.
As to whether Deal is concerned those lawsuits will drag into election season, he said that's not a question for him.
"All of this is under the control of the Attorney General’s office. They are the ones who defend cases of this nature. That is more appropriately asked of the Attorney General’s office, not of me. I’m not involved in the case in one way or the other," said Deal.