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Friday, January 24, 2014

GOP Senate leadership tosses Carter's attempt to form independent ethics commission

State Sen. Jason Carter speaking at a recent democrat fundraiser

State Senate leaders have thwarted an attempt by state Sen. Jason Carter, D-Atlanta, to create an independent ethics commission.

Senate leadership this morning removed the amendment, which would've made the state ethics commission free from Gold Dome oversight, from a bill that would make technical changes to campaign finance exemptions for local elected officials.

Earlier this month, Carter told CL that he had introduced similar efforts last year and wanted to see a discussion on the matter. Currently, the commission's members are appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor, and House speaker.

The AJC's Kristina Torres explains the history behind Carter's push:

[Gov. Nathan] Deal issued an executive order last year moving the ethics commission to the State Accounting Office. It alarmed ethics watchdogs, who noted the accounting office reports directly to the governor's office. The Secretary of State's office is more independent. Watchdogs also noted the change is coming as the commission - which is supposed to keep watch over the state's elected officials - has floundered.

The commission's former executive director, Stacey Kalberman, and her top deputy, Sherilyn Streicker, both have filed whistle-blower lawsuits against the state claiming they were forced from their jobs for pressing an investigation into Deal's 2010 campaign. Both cases are set for trial next month, and several current and former commissioners and employees are expected to testify.

The commission in 2012 cleared Deal of major violations, and he agreed to pay about $3,000 in administrative fees. The commission's staff attorney, however, has said she initially recommended $70,000 in fines but was overruled by the commission's current executive director, Holly LaBerge. LaBerge was handpicked for the post by Deal's office.

Common Cause Georgia Executive Director William Perry says he's "extremely disappointed" in the Senate's decision to block the independent ethics commission amendment. Given recent controversies surrounding the current ethics commission, he hoped a more open conversation would take place.

"The perception of the current appointment process is something the public can't believe in," Perry tells CL. "We need to avoid this awful perception. The fox is picking who guards the chicken house."

The bill, sans the Carter's commission amendment, passed with a 46-6 vote. It'll now head to the Georgia House of Representatives for a vote.

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