Several Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission employees claim that Executive Director Holly LaBerge tampered with a state investigation looking into Deal's gubernatorial campaign.
AJC watchdogs Greg Bluestein, Aaron Gould Sheinin, and Shannon McCaffrey (along with contributors Chris Joyner, Kristina Torres and James Salzer) report that the ethics commission head allegedly removed documents pertinent to the probe and even met with high-ranking members of Deal's staff during the process.
The newspaper's story, found behind myajc.com's paywall, is definitely worth a full read. Here's the gist of what happened around the investigation in question:
The major charges against Deal were dismissed, and he was slapped with a small penalty for technical defects on his campaign filings. Afterward, staffers say LaBerge boasted that the governor "owed" her for making his legal troubles disappear.
Reached by phone late Wednesday, LaBerge declined to comment.
LaBerge was recruited by Deal aides to lead the panel, which was probing complaints against the governor stemming from his 2010 campaign. In a sworn statement obtained by the AJC, LaBerge said she received a phone call from the governor's office asking whether she was interested in the ethics post even before it was open. The ethics commission is responsible for hiring its own director and is meant to be an independent watchdog overseeing campaign finance and lobbying in the state.
Commission staffers also told the AJC that the executive director allegedly boasted about her ties to the governor and how she helped make his legal troubles disappear. That included John Hair, former computer specialist for the commission, who claims he was forced out of his job after removing documents from Deal's ethics file.
The report, which should be read in its entirely, also delves far deeper into the political skirmishes within the commission.
Current Chairman Kevin Abernethy declined to comment, telling the paper, "neither I nor the commission will comment on pending litigation or the merit or substance of the statements that you're referencing."
Deal lawyer Randy Evans said that LaBerge didn't have the final influence over such ethics rulings - that belongs to the five-person commission whose members are appointed by the governor, he said - and called the accusations "insulting" to its members.
What'll be worth watching, beyond the possible political and criminal fallout, is whether this kind of high-profile ethics accusation will have any impact on ongoing ethics reforms under the Gold Dome. And whether the ethics commission can ever really be an effective, independent body.
During the 2012 legislative session, former state Sen. Doug Stoner, D-Smyrna, proposed to turn the ethics commission into an independent agency free from the governor's control. As we discussed at the time, commission appointees would come from the Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice and the Chief Judge of the Georgia Court of Appeals. Funding would've been tied to a fixed proportion of the state's budget, making it harder to defund or weaken the damn thing.
UPDATE, 11:14 a.m.: Well that didn't take long. Common Cause Georgia has already called for an investigation into the above claims. "This may not be the actual fox guarding the hen house, but it looks like the fox may have fired one guard while hiring his own - if that's not an ethical conflict, I don't know what is," Executive Director William Perry said in a statement.
Adds Perry: "If these shocking allegations are true, Georgians deserve not only a thorough independent investigation into these matters, but also a complete overhaul of this agency. Our organization has for years called for independent appointments to and funding of this Commission, but legislative leaders have continually denied public demand for strong ethics laws claiming high standards are not needed because we have leaders who act ethically and are scandal free. It looks like we now have the kind of scandal so many of us have feared."
UPDATE, 11:43 a.m.: Gov. Deal has respond to the AJC story, calling the claims "totally unsubstantiated." He adds:
I am so regretful of the decline that I have seen in the reporting by the AJC. If they continue that downward spiral as it relates to every issue of major importance they pretty well are going to descend to the level where they can't even claim to be a fish wrapper.
Not the dreaded fish wrapper!
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