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Friday, April 4, 2014

Jury: State must pay former state ethics commission head $700,000

A jury has sided with - and awarded $700,000 to - the former head of Georgia's ethics commission who says she was squeezed out of her position following an attempted probe into Gov. Nathan Deal's 2010 gubernatorial campaign.

Back in June 2012, Stacey Kalberman filed a whistle-blower lawsuit against the state for slashing her pay and cutting top deputy Sherilyn Streicker's position. Kalberman argued that the move was retribution for her push to issue subpoenas regarding the governor's campaign expenditures. Deal was later cleared of major violations in a July 2012 settlement and agreed to pay $3,350 in administrative fees.

The AJC's Aaron Gould Sheinin wrote that Kalberman's attorney said the evidence about her forced removal was more than apparent:

Kalberman attorney Kim Worth told jurors that the commission's defense in the case is full of inconsistencies and contradictions. Defense witnesses, Worth said, testified that they recruited Holly Laberge to replace Kalberman while Kalberman was still in her job and before they announced plans to cut her salary and eliminate Streicker's job.

Worth said even former commission Chairman Patrick Millsaps, who engineered the plan to cut Kalberman's salary, testified that the recruitment of Laberge by Deal's office "doesn't pass the smell test."

"That, ladies and gentlemen, is pretext," Worth said. "The very first witness. It doesn't add up."

According to the Associated Press' Kate Brumback, Assistant Attorney General Bryan Webb stated the salary and staff reductions were tied to major budget woes. Jurors didn't buy that argument, however, and after nearly three hours of deliberations delivered a verdict siding with Kalberman.

Following the jury's decision, Kalberman appeared quite elated, most likely because, in addition to being vindicated, she was just awarded a whole lot of cash. 11 Alive snapped a photo of her grinning from cheek to cheek:

After the trial, Kalberman told reporters that the $700,000 judgment did not include back pay or attorney fees. The ruling could bring the state's overall tab well past $1 million, she added.

Update: Gov. Nathan Deal's office says in a statement to WSB-TV:

Today's verdict centered around an internal dispute between former employees and former commissioners of the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, which is a body that operates independently of elected officials. There's a reason no member of the governor's staff was called to testify: because there's no connection to this office.

After the most exhaustive review of such a case in Georgia history, commissioners last year ruled that the charges levied against Deal for Governor lacked merit. Those decisions are rendered by the commissioners, not commission staff. As such, who the commission employed as staff had no relevance to the Deal for Governor case.

Meanwhile, state Sen. Jason Carter, D-Decatur, who's mounting a gubernatorial campaign against Deal, took the opportunity to blast the governor's administration:

This whistle-blower trial opened a new window into the unethical culture of Gov. Deal's administration," Carter said. "Between this trial, the ongoing federal grand jury inquiry, and the new revelations that the governor used his official taxpayer-paid staff to advance his private business dealings, it is clear that this governor doesn't think that the rules apply to him.

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.

So did former Dalton Mayor and GOP gubernatorial candidate David Pennington:

Nathan Deal's abuses of power, ethics flaws, and strong arm, good old boy politics no longer have a place in our state. If we, Republicans, actually want to defeat Jason Carter this November, we must ensure an ethical conservative is on the top of the ticket. I am the proven Conservative who can defeat Carter.

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