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State auditor, not Olens, to review Deal investigation
By JIM WALLS
Oct. 22, 2013 — UPDATE: State auditor Greg Griffin, rather than Attorney General Sam Olens, will oversee an investigation of alleged misconduct at the state ethics commission.
Commission chairman Kevin Abernethy announced the decision this afternoon, releasing this statement by email and declining further comment:
Today the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission announced that the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts has agreed to conduct an internal investigation and performance audit of the agency. Georgia law provides that indications of mismanagement or misconduct by an employee of a state agency warrant investigation by the state auditor, see O.C.G.A. §§ 50-6-28, and accordingly the auditor was requested to do so. This request was made in lieu of the earlier announced intention to request the Attorney General appoint an investigator. Because the Department of Audits and Accounts is state-funded, this internal investigation and performance audit will not incur additional taxpayer expense.
Out of respect for the integrity of the pending investigation and audit, the Commission will decline all requests to comment further.
The state auditor works for the state Legislature and normally is appointed by that body. Griffin, though, was appointed by Deal in June 2012 as provided by law when the Legislature is not in session. Griffin, then the deputy auditor, filled the vacancy left by the planned retirement of former auditor Russell Hinton.
Oct. 22, 2013 — Attorney General Sam Olens, whom Gov. Nathan Deal had reportedly wanted to keep away from the ethics probe of his 2010 campaign, won’t be handling a review of the case after all. Instead, the state ethics commission now plans to hire its own investigator to look into its conduct.
The commission, following a series of published allegations that its 2012 Deal investigation was compromised, voted unanimously Sept. 30 to ask Olens to name a special attorney general to explore the allegations. In the weeks to follow, commission Chairman Kevin Abernethy said the commission was still trying to define exactly what should be investigated.
Now, the commission has decided not to involve Olens, Abernethy wrote in an email Monday. He and Vice Chair Hillary Stringfellow released a joint statement saying:
The Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission has and continues to vet candidates to conduct an internal investigation of the agency, as well as reviewing and determining the scope and nature of the investigation. Numerous candidates have been and continue to be reviewed and considered to serve in the role. The individuals and scope of work being considered is being considered in lieu of the earlier announced intention to request the Attorney General appoint an investigator. [emphasis added]
Abernethy did not immediately respond to a request for more information on the decision. Published reports have suggested the cash-strapped commission could not afford the cost of a special assistant attorney general, typically a private attorney paid an hourly rate for his or her services.
Olens’ name came up recently
as an possible factor in Deal’s 2012 settlement with the commission over alleged irregularities in his campaign finances. Elisabeth Murray-Obertein, the commission’s staff attorney, testified that her boss told her that Deal wanted to avoid having the case proceed to a hearing before an administrative hearing.
Deal’s attorney, Randy Evans, has said he wanted to take the case to a hearing because he believed he would win. But in her Aug. 1 deposition, Murray-Obertein said commission director Holly LaBerge told her Deal didn’t want Olens, a potential rival in the 2014 governor’s race, to play any role in the proceedings.
“Randy wanted to go to trial on everything, and [LaBerge] was telling me that the governor wants to settle. He does not want to go to trial. And I was told that one of the reasons why he doesn’t want to go to trial is because it would go over to the AG’s office and that Sam Olens is – a possibility he might run against him for governor – I don’t know if any of this is true or not; I was told that – and that the governor did not want to be in the hands of Sam Olens.”
Murray-Obertein’s deposition was taken as testimony in a lawsuit filed by Stacey Kalberman, the commission’s former executive secretary. Kalberman and her former deputy, Sherry Streicker, claim they were forced from their jobs in June 2011 because they were planning to subpoena financial records of Deal and a number of his business associate.
LaBerge testified in the case that the governor’s office called her in May 2011, when she was a lobbyist for the state public defender agency, to gauge her interest in the commission’s top job. The contact came before Kalberman learned her position was in jeopardy, fueling speculation that the governor’s office hoped to derail the inquiry by replacing her.
Murray-Obertein testified that LaBerge later pressured her to close the Deal case by accepting a financial settlement far below what the attorney deemed appropriate. She said LaBerge boasted of having a close relationship with Deal and that he owed her for closing the case with a $3,350 penalty.
LaBerge has declined to comment on the litigation. Deal’s office has denied playing any role in undermining the investigation.