Monday, September 23, 2013

Hey, South Carolina, look what's happening at Georgia's ethics agency

Georgia's ethics chief accused of helping governor during probe

Posted by Corey Hutchins on Mon, Sep 23, 2013 at 1:00 PM

click to enlarge Georgia Governor Nathan Deal - FLICKR USER RICHLACEY
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  • Georgia Governor Nathan Deal
The head of Georgia's ethics agency, Holly LaBerge, is facing allegations that she intervened in investigations of GOP Gov. Nathan Deal and made ethics complaints against him disappear. 

The Associated Press reports:

Staffers have given sworn testimony accusing LaBerge of ordering the removal of documents from the case file and meeting with top Deal aides while the probe was ongoing. According to the testimony, LaBerge said that the governor “owed her one” after she claimed to have made ethics complaints against him “go away.”

Former staffers at Georgia's ethics agency have filed a whistleblower lawsuit. They include the agency's former director, Stacey Kalberman, who claims she was retaliated against for wanting to move forward with an investigation involving Gov. Deal's campaign. Ethics commissioners cut her salary 30 percent. And they eliminated the job of her top deputy, who also wanted to go ahead with the probe. Commissioners said it was for cost-cutting budgetary reasons.

After the director who wanted to investigate the governor resigned, LaBerge took over. 

More from the Georgia AP:

LaBerge testified that she received a phone call from the governor’s office asking whether she was interested in heading the commission even before the job was open. The commission was intended as an independent watchdog agency overseeing campaign finance and lobbying. It is supposed to hire its own director.

So why should South Carolinians care about what's going on at Georgia's ethics agency? Because the state's ethics director here has faced recent accusations that he'd protected Republican Gov. Nikki Haley in two recent incidents involving matters before the commission. 

This is from our recent story on vacancies and expired terms in state government, including at the Ethics Commission (emphasis mine):

Last month, Haley was forced to pay a $3,500 fine and donate $5,000 to a children's charity for not keeping the proper addresses of her campaign donors. The agency investigated Haley after receiving a formal complaint. It took 14 months to resolve the issue, and e-mails later surfaced that showed the Ethics Commission's director, Herb Hayden, suggested to Haley's attorneys ways in which the governor might help herself look better in the process.

“I know your concerns with possible political repercussions, and to offset that I would suggest that you might want to add some language in the discussion that in view of the Governor's concern with ethics reform and transparency, by paying the fine and donating the anonymous contributions to the Children's Trust Fund, she is setting an example for all others to follow,” Hayden had written. “That would keep anyone from accusing her of being hypocritical, and preaching reform while expecting preferential treatment for herself.”

Hayden says he wasn’t offering the governor free political or public relations advice, but merely trying to get her to settle the charges because her lawyers had dragged the case on for so long. But Chris Kenney, a lawyer for the Democratic Party staffer who had filed the original complaint, said Hayden’s conduct was inappropriate.

“The State Ethics Commission works for the offenders and Herb Hayden should be fired,” Kenney says. He pointed out that Hayden's job is in the hands of the commissioners and all of them are holdovers, meaning Haley can replace them each at will. In other words, director Hayden's job could depend on whoever Haley wanted to appoint should she choose to wipe out the commissioners and replace them with her own people.

The issue blew up again just (last) week.

An editorial in The State newspaper Sept. 10 raised questions about how the State Ethics Commission's director Hayden handled a response about Haley's June trip to North Carolina in a state vehicle carrying campaign aides that crashed into a pole at 10 mph. The minor car crash wasn't much of a concern – it was that Haley and her campaign folks were using state resources to attend an event where Haley raised money. The State Ethics Commission's attorney, Cathy Hazelwood, said Haley would have to reimburse the state because she can't use state funds for campaign events. Hazelwood said she would be sending Haley a letter saying as much. But Hayden (who is not a lawyer) later undercut Hazelwood shortly after talking with Haley's private attorneys. He made sure the letter was never sent.

“Since the governor has left seven members of the Ethics Commission in holdover status and the other two seats vacant, giving her the unusual power to replace them at a moment’s notice, we can’t help worrying that Mr. Hayden was worried about angering the governor,” The State's editorial read. “Although the governor can remove her appointees only for cause, it’s hard to imagine that commissioners appointed on the condition that they fire the director would refuse to do that.”

The question about whether Haley's North Carolina trip was a campaign event or not, and whether she should reimburse the state for it, might not be resolved. The State Ethics Commission would have to investigate it if someone were to file a formal complaint. 

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