ATLANTA -- An ethics watchdog group called for the resignation of the state ethics commission director Tuesday, citing her involvement in recent whistleblower payouts.
The organization, Common Cause Georgia, said Executive Secretary Holly LaBerge gained her position as the head of the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission as a result of the wrongful termination of other employees.
“She’s played a large role in $3 million of taxpayer money getting paid out to people who were fired for doing their job,” said Common Cause Georgia’s Executive Director William Perry.
The nearly $3 million payout resulted from settlements in lawsuits from four former employees who claimed they were wrongfully terminated after investigating complaints about Gov. Nathan Deal’s campaign. Earlier this week, settlements were reached with former deputy Sherry Streicker, former information technology specialist John Hair and former staff attorney Elisabeth Murray-Obertein, totaling to more than $1.8 million. That is in addition to an April settlement which awarded $700,000 plus attorney’s fees to former Executive Secretary Stacy Kalberman.
Deal’s office did not have a comment on Common Cause Georgia’s demand for LaBerge to quit or be fired because the commission is independently operated, said Deal spokesman Brian Robinson. The commission is run by five political appointees of the governor, the Senate leadership and the speaker of the House, all Republicans.
Deal, however, did comment on the state’s whistleblower-protection law, which allows state employees to file complaints about government wrongdoing without fear of being fired or punished. Deal called for a review of this policy.
“None of us want a situation where you have any agency within state government where someone cannot be fired for legitimate reasons and could seek the protection of a whistleblower statute as a defense to their being removed,” Deal said. “From that standpoint, it needs to be looked at.”
He said the overall purpose behind the whistleblower law is “useful and good” and worth keeping.
However, his comment on “legitimate reasons” probably had to do with the settlement Murray-Obertein received even though her termination came after she reportedly showed up at work drunk.
“Just remember – you don’t have to be right about what you claim you’re blowing the whistle about,” Deal said. “You can be totally wrong and still be entitled to receive damages. That’s what I think is misunderstood.”
Perry said Deal’s comments on these protections were the “ultimate in hypocrisy” and are focused on the wrong problem.
“When you say, ‘I want to change the rules so people can’t tell on me again,’ that’s just the wrong way to go about it,” Perry said.
Perry was not alone in questioning Deal’s comments. A statement from the campaign of Democratic challenger Sen. Jason Carter (D-Decatur) also condemned Deal.
“Whistleblowers aren’t the problem. Gov. Deal’s cover-up is,” said Carter spokesperson Bryan Thomas. “Whistleblowers protect taxpayers by exposing waste, fraud and abuse in our state government. The only reason you would want to crack down on whistleblowers is if you want to keep abusing your office for personal gain without being exposed.”
Public awareness of the state ethics commission investigation may be low right now, Perry said, but the campaign will put the issue on more voters’ radar.
“Unfortunately the governor has made ethics and what has happened at this commission part of the campaign, like it or not, so it has to be discussed,” he said.
Both Carter and Deal have proposed plans to make the ethics commission more independent.
Deal has supported increasing the size of the commission, giving appointments to all three branches of government and not allowing commissioners to review cases against whoever made their appointment. Carter has supported giving power of commissioner appointment to the chief justices of the Georgia Supreme Court and Court of Appeals in addition to a bill to independently fund the ethics commission through a portion of the state budget that lawmakers couldn’t reduce.