Federal Probe Involving State Ethics Commission and Gov. Deal Widens

Dec 12, 2013

State ethics commission chief Holly LaBerge and Gov. Nathan Deal

A federal probe involving the state ethics commission and Gov. Nathan Deal is widening.

A federal grand jury has subpoenaed five current and former commission staffers, according to news reports.

Holly LaBerge, head of the state ethics commission, is among those reportedly subpoenaed.

LaBerge’s attorney, Mike Brown, wouldn’t confirm or deny that, but said:

“If there is a subpoena, Holly Laberge will cooperate completely because she has nothing to hide.”

Co-workers of LaBerge have made statements under oath that suggest she inappropriately interfered with ethics complaints against Deal.

Commission attorney Elisabeth Murray-Obertein has claimed LaBerge bragged about her relationship with the governor and said Deal “owed her” for helping settle an ethics case involving his 2010 gubernatorial campaign.

LaBerge’s attorney strongly denied those allegations.

“Holly and the commission treated the matters involving Governor Deal like they treated every other matter. He never received any preferential treatment and she never said that Governor Deal owed her because she had done something to his benefit on those matters,” said Brown.

The governor’s attorney, Randy Evans, said Deal has not been contacted by federal officials. He denied Deal did anything to interfere with the state ethics probe. In the past, Deal has characterized the issue as a personnel dispute among state employees.

”Believe it not, we’re actually the victim in this scenario,” said Evans.

One of the subpoenaed former commission staffers - computer specialist John Hair - claims he was pressured by superiors to destroy documents related to the probe into Deal’s campaign.

Evans welcomed further investigation into that aspect of the case.

“We were worried about it. If it turns out that in fact happened then, yes, if there is an investigation, that would be appropriate,” said Evans. “We put no pressure onto anyone to destroy or alter a document. In fact, we worked hard to maintain a set of documents so in the event something like this happened that the relevant documents – the ones that were of consequence or significance – we’d have a copy of.”

Questions were first raised in 2011 after a pair of state ethics officers - former commission chief Stacey Kalberman and her top deputy, Sherilyn Streicker - filed separate whistleblower lawsuits for wrongful termination. They claimed it was retaliation for pursuing the ethics probe into Deal's campaign.

Those lawsuits are ongoing.

In October, amid calls for an independent investigation, the state ethics commission asked the state auditor to review the case. The auditor agreed to investigate, but ethics advocates were dissatisfied, saying a state official appointed by the governor couldn't be trusted to pursue the case objectively.

William Perry of government watchdog group Common Cause Georgia said he’s pleased to hear a federal grand jury is issuing subpoenas.

“I think it’s good news for the people of Georgia and I think it’s also good news for the governor who is claiming to be innocent and not involved in this, and certainly a [federal] grand jury investigation can ferret the truth,” said Perry.

In an email, Kevin Abernathy, board chair of the state ethics commission, said he was not prepared to comment on the subpoenas because he had just learned about them from news reports. Abernathy did say that he, along with the board's four other members, had not been subpoenaed as part of the federal probe.