Deal has put forth a proposal to reform the ethics commission in the wake of the jury’s decision awarding $700,000 to Stacey Kalberman, the former director who said in her lawsuit her pay was cut 30 percent and her deputy director’s position eliminated when they tried to get approval from the commission for subpoenas to investigate Deal’s 2010 campaign reports and financial disclosures. Essentially, the jury bought into Kalberman’s contention the commission retaliated against her and her deputy for the investigation.
Deal was cleared of major violations by the ethics commission and agreed to pay $3,350 in administrative fees. He says he had no involvement in the Kalberman case. However, this case and two more behind could prove quite troublesome for Deal in this election year.
The current ethics commission director, Holly LaBerge, who succeeded Kalberman, testified someone in the governor’s office contacted her in May 2011 and asked if she would be interested in the director’s job. That happened before Kalberman’s salary was cut and a public posting of the job was made available. In court, LaBerge claimed she didn’t remember who in the governor’s office called her about the job. (Three of the five commissioners are appointed by the governor under existing law, and one member each is named by the House Speaker and the Senate Committee on Assignments.)
If the Kalberman case wasn’t enough to jolt Deal’s re-election campaign — and opponents already are firing away at him on that score — lawsuits are pending by two other former ethics commission staffers, including Kalberman’s deputy. Whether they go to trial or not, they will provide more ammunition for Deal’s campaign opponents. Ditto if they are settled without trial.
As for reforming the ethics commission, there’s no doubt it needs changing from the way it has operated in some important cases in the past. That brings us to Deal’s proposal. His plan calls for expanding the commission to include appointees from the judicial branch of state government in addition to the executive and legislative branches that have been doing the appointing.
Deal proposes to increase the membership from five to 12, with each branch of government appointing four of the commission members. Cases originating from one branch of government would be decided by commission members appointed by the other two branches. This, Deal said, would “assure that no public official’s campaign is investigated by commissioners appointed by his or her branch of government.”
Maybe there’s a fundamental problem with the government appointing ethics commission members in the first place. Maybe the Georgia Supreme Court, which is as close to nonpartisan as is available, should appoint all the commission members from a list of their own nominees or a list provided by non-government groups. Maybe this needs more study.