OIG probe leaves open questions about staff departures at ethics panel
By JIM WALLS
Dec. 9, 2011 — Georgia Inspector General Deron R. Hicks says his staff found no evidence that his boss, Gov. Nathan Deal, pressed for the firing of the state’s top two ethics investigators.
The question is: How hard did he really look?
Stacey Kalberman, executive secretary of the state Campaign Finance Commission, and her deputy, Sherilyn Streicker, lost their jobs abruptly in June, ostensibly for budget reasons. Those personnel actions came shortly after they had asked the commission to approve subpoenas for Deal and several close associates to produce campaign and business financial records.
Atlanta Unfiltered reported Thursday that Hicks, responding to a complaint alleging political interference at the commission, made a preliminary inquiry, said there was nothing there and closed the case Nov. 1.
Hicks said in an interview that he “isolated” himself from the investigation from the start, since he is Deal’s appointee, and assigned the case to his senior investigator, Deborah Wallace.
“I do have faith that she makes wise decisions based on what she considers the most relevant issue,” Hicks said Thursday.
Wallace’s investigation consisted primarily of interviews with Kalberman and Streicker, who said they thought politics was behind the shakeup, and with the five commission members and the governor’s former executive counsel, who said the personnel actions were not politically motivated, a review of the case file shows. Investigators also spoke with employees of the Attorney General’s and Secretary of State’s offices who were unlikely to have direct knowledge of political motivations for those personnel actions.
Wallace also submitted a couple written questions to Deal who, through his attorney, denied involvement in Kalberman’s departure.
Kalberman provided Hicks’ investigator with phone records to support her statement that the governor’s office called to offer her help finding another job. The investigator did not ask then-commission Chairman Patrick Millsaps to provide phone records showing whom he’d been talking to, particularly in the period after Deal had reappointed him to another term in March.
Nor did they ask Millsaps about several notable disputed points, particularly his public statements that he felt he should recuse himself from the Deal investigation.
Millsaps told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in June:
“We were given something on the Deal case. I probably didn’t look at it too much.”
Kalberman told a different story, according to a memo on her interview with the Inspector General’s investigator:
Kalberman told OIG that she briefed Millsaps who served as Board Chairman, most frequently in order to keep him apprised about ongoing matters of the agency, and especially the Deal investigation. She described that the more they spoke about the investigation, the “communication intensified” and Millsaps “seemed uneasy” about the case. As a result, their conversations became “tense.”
Streicker told the Inspector General
“that throughout the course of her [Deal] investigation, Kalberman had briefed Chairman Patrick Millsaps ‘who had come across as hesitant about our investigation.’
Streicker told OIG, “Next thing you know the budget stuff came out of the blue and they eliminated my position.”
Nothing in the OIG file indicates that Millsaps was asked whether Kalberman had briefed him on the investigation or whether he had spoken with anyone other than the commission’s membership or staff about the probe. Millsaps later stepped down from the commission after questions were raised about the legality of his appointment.
The investigation also did not address why the commissioners, who justified Streicker’s termination by saying they did not need an attorney on staff, have since decided they need a staff attorney after all.
The final step in the OIG’s investigation was an Oct. 24 letter to Deal’s executive counsel, Ryan Teague, asking whether the governor had discussed Kalberman’s situation with any of the commissioners or had asked Millsaps to “get rid” of her.
Teague’s response, in an Oct. 25 letter:
“Per your request, I have inquired of Governor Deal on the questions posed.
“First, Governor Deal did not have any discussion with Director Millsaps or anyone from the GGTCFC regarding personnel transactions relating to Stacey Kalberman. Second and in response to your question 3), Governor Deal did not have any type of communications with Director Millsaps regarding ‘getting rid’ of Stacey Kalberman.”
Wallace’s letter did not ask whether anyone else in the governor’s office might have talked to Millsaps about Kalberman.
“That was my call to address it with a letter,” Hicks said Thursday. “I felt like it was the best way to not leave any questions as to what was asked.”
He acknowledged that his investigator could also have recorded an interview with Deal to alleviate such questions.
Hicks also disputed any suggestion that, since he works for Deal, the outcome of the investigation was a foregone conclusion.
“I didn’t create the structure of my office. Governor Deal didn’t create the structure of my office,” he said. “We found ourselves in the positions we found ourselves in.”
Ex-Gov. Sonny Perdue created the Inspector General’s job within the governor’s office in 2003 by executive order. There is no mention of the inspector general in state law.
“You’re gonna inevitably get someone saying it’s because you work for the governor, which I do,” Hicks said. “There’s no way around that.”
P.S. Randy Evans, attorney for Deal’s campaign, still hasn’t returned my call for comment on the inspector general’s findings. But he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Hicks’ investigation was “thorough and complete.”