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Deal, Ralston, Oxendine probes in limbo as top ethics staffers depart
By JIM WALLS
Ethics probes involving Gov. Nathan Deal, House Speaker David Ralston and former Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine are in limbo today as the attorneys conducting those investigations look for new jobs.
Stacey Kalberman and Sherilyn Streicker, the top two staffers at the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, learned last week they must clean out their desks by June 30. They served as the commission’s only two attorneys and, for practical purposes, its only investigators.
Kalberman, the agency’s executive secretary, either resigned or was fired after learning her $120,000 salary would be whacked by nearly one-third, ostensibly for budget reasons. Streicker, her deputy, found out her position would be eliminated at the end of the month.
Lawmakers have slashed the commission’s budget by 42 percent since 2008, forcing a reduction in staff from 23 to just 10. Its $1 million budget for 2011 was down 8 percent from 2010, even as legislators added new responsibilities that could cost $420,000 or more.
No evidence has yet surfaced to show a connection between the personnel moves and the pending investigations. Regardless, little progress in those inquiries seems likely until new leadership is in place. The commission hired Kalberman as executive secretary in March 2010 after a seven-month search.
Kalberman and Streicker in recent weeks were examining Deal’s lucrative and exclusive arrangement, while he was a congressman, to host state inspections of salvaged vehicles in north Georgia.
The investigators recently obtained records that show, as Atlanta Unfiltered first reported last fall, that Deal and his business partner nearly doubled their profit after a 2005 state contract for that service was rescinded. Those records came to light after a congressional investigation of charges that Deal tried to use his office to derail a subsequent attempt to rebid the contract.
The commission was also investigating complaints that Deal improperly used money from his Georgia campaign account to defend himself in the congressional investigation, and that his campaign for governor accepted $130,000 in excess contributions.
(A fourth complaint, alleging Deal’s gubernatorial campaign did not properly disclose $90,000 in payments to his daughter-in-law for fund-raising, was filed with the commission over the weekend).
The commission is also investigating:
- Lobbyist Chris Brady’s failure to promptly report $17,000 spent to fly Ralston, his chief of staff and their families to Germany last fall. Ralston is not the subject of that investigation.
- Oxendine’s receipt of $120,000 in apparently illegal campaign contributions for his unsuccessful 2010 bid for governor. The case is on hold while attorneys for two Rome-based insurance companies also under investigation are in court seeking to have the charges dismissed.
Ralston and other legislative leaders have shown little patience for the commission’s pleas for more money. As the Associated Press reported last month:
Joe Wilkinson, chairman of the House Ethics [Committee], said he’d like to see the commission get more funding when the state’s budget picture improves.
“But, yes, I do think they have adequate funding,” the Republican from Sandy Springs said.
Marshall Guest, a spokesman for House Speaker David Ralston, said that other state agencies have also shouldered deep cuts and have been able to fulfill their missions. And he said that lawmakers gave the commission the ability to keep some of the fees they collect.
“If they exercise that statutory ability to recover fees then they will have additional funds over and above what was appropriated,” Guest said.
Kalberman said that while the commission may keep 25 dollars on every late fee they collect, more than half of delinquent filers haven’t paid their fine. And she said the commission has neither the money nor authority to pursue them.