ATLANTA — When Gov. Nathan Deal was elected almost three years ago, he successfully fought off sustained attacks from his opponents questioning his ethics that went back to his days in Congress. Now as Deal faces re-election next year, the issue has resurfaced with a report detailing accusations that the governor’s pick to lead the state ethics commission conspired with his top aides to minimize an ethics investigation and ordered documents removed from his file.
The report Thursday by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution brought a scathing response by the governor, a call by a top Democrat for state and federal investigations and outrage from a government watchdog group. Deal’s Republican primary opponents also criticized the governor and sought to offer themselves as ethical alternatives.
Deal, who spoke at length with reporters to address the accusations, said the claims in the story made by one current and one former state employee were “totally unsubstantiated and primarily false.” The governor said the meetings between his top aides and the executive secretary of the state ethics commission were not about the complaints over his campaign finance reports, but rather about efforts by state lawmakers to implement ethics reform.
He said allegations by a former commission employee who said he was fired in April after refusing to remove documents from Deal’s file were untrue. Deal said the only changes to the records would have been redacting sensitive information such as Social Security numbers before the files became public.
“They looked at all the files and any redactions that occurred would have taken place after the commission, who had full access to all of that information, after they had given full consideration and in most cases found it to be totally irrelevant and improper,” Deal said.
In its report, the newspaper said it had obtained a sworn statement in which commission executive secretary Holly LaBerge said she received a phone call from the governor’s office asking whether she was interested in the job before it was even posted. The commission is meant to be an independent watchdog agency overseeing campaign finance and lobbying and is charged with hiring its own chief.
The newspaper also reported that Elisabeth Murray-Obertein, a staff attorney at the commission, said she later heard LaBerge say the governor “owes me” after the commission issued a $3,350 penalty to resolve ethics complaints against Deal.
The sum was far lower than the $70,000 that Murray-Obertein said she recommended.
“(LaBerge) said she made Governor Deal’s legal problems go away and now he owes her, and that I need to ask myself how much I want to continue being a part of the ethics commission,” Murray-Obertein told the newspaper.
In a brief telephone call, LaBerge said she had no comment when asked about Murray-Obertein’s accusations and cited pending litigation involving the ethics commission and its former executive secretary. LaBerge and Murray-Obertein are among those who have given sworn statements in the lawsuits, which are pending and claim the former chief and her deputy were pushed out for aggressively pursuing the investigation into the governor, according to the newspaper.
Deal said his office may have received a request from commission members seeking input on qualified candidates, but said he did not know LaBerge, who was with the Public Defender Standards Council at the time, before she was hired and would not recognize her today.
“For somebody that I don’t know, I don’t see how I owe her anything,” Deal said. “I expect people to do what’s right. I expect them to make sure the ethics process is not used as a political tool, and it has been used as a political tool.”
Deal added he was disappointed with the Journal-Constitution, saying the newspaper had given a voice to disgruntled former employees seeking to try their case in the media. Bert Roughton, senior managing editor, said the newspaper stands by the story.
“And we are disappointed that the governor failed to use this as an opportunity to address the very important issues raised by our reporting,” Roughton said.
Democrats and government watchdog groups called for an investigation into the governor and his office. Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson said the allegations raise serious questions about the independence of the ethics commission.
“Naming your own appointees to an ethics commission when you are under investigation is simply wrong,” Henson said in a statement. “Ethics enforcement in Georgia should not be biased and controlled by the very people it’s investigating.”
William Perry with the group Common Cause Georgia said he believes an independent investigation is needed as is a possible overhaul of the ethics commission.
“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 law claiming high standards are not needed because we have leaders who act ethically and are scandal free,” Perry said in a statement. “It looks like we now have the kind of scandal so many of us have feared.”
Deal’s Republican primary opponents also pounced.
Dalton Mayor David Pennington sent an email to supporters with the full story, saying Deal’s “ethical problems run deeper and are continuing to grow.”
Georgia Schools Superintendent John Barge, who has made ethics and education his top campaign issues, said he was not surprised by the report.
“To anyone familiar with the political history of our current governor, there is nothing shocking in today’s allegations against him,” Barge said in a statement. “Georgia deserves better and I promise the people of Georgia that this will not be acceptable behavior in my administration.”
Deal, a former congressman from north Georgia, was the target of a congressional ethics probe into meetings he had with the state’s revenue commissioner seeking to preserve an arrangement benefiting his Gainesville auto salvage business, which he has since sold. A report issued by the Office of Congressional Ethics said Deal may have violated House rules but he left Congress before any action could be taken and was never charged with any wrongdoing.