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Ethics panel revisits Deal case today
By JIM WALLS
Nov. 13, 2013 — Today, Georgia’s beleaguered Campaign Finance Commission decides just how badly it wants to learn about itself and its 2012 ethics settlement with Gov. Nathan Deal.
On the table when the commission meets at 9:30 a.m.: A motion to formally ask State Auditor Greg Griffin to conduct a performance audit of the agency.
Then the question will be: Should the commission do more to address allegations that Deal’s office dictated the outcome of an investigation into his 2010 campaign finances?
“I’m certainly not taking anything off the table,” chair Kevin Abernethy said this week. “We are going to do what we need to do under the constraints we have to find out what’s been happening at the commission.”
Questions have swirled for two months since news reports broke that Deal’s office, while the case was pending in 2011, recruited the agency’s top administrator, Holly LaBerge. Later, her staff attorney said, LaBerge and his top staffers brokered a settlement that dismissed most of the charges against Deal with a modest financial penalty for the remainder.
The revelations came in sworn testimony in a whistleblower suit filed by LaBerge’s predecessor, who charges she was forced out of her job to derail the Deal probe.
The commission responded Sept. 30, vowing to seek an independent inquiry by Attorney General Sam Olens into its handling of the case. The perpetually cash-strapped commission soon backpedaled, though, unwilling to pay Olens’ office the thousands of dollars — perhaps tens of thousands — that such an investigation might entail. Rather than bear that cost, Abernethy asked the state Auditor’s Office to step in.
Griffin agreed to conduct a performance audit, but not the more thorough probe that the commission had promised.
“As much as anything, this was a decision driven by the budget,” Abernethy said in an interview. “If you look at the numbers, it wasn’t going to be practical or even doable” to pay for a special assistant attorney general to conduct the investigation.
Olens’ involvement could also have been problematic for legal reasons, since his attorneys are defending the commission in the whistleblower suits. Defending your clients while investigating them can create conflicts.
Today’s task — asking commissioners to ratify a decision that’s already been made — is an “imperfect scenario,” Abernethy acknowledged.
Today’s meeting, though, allows the commissioners and the public to weigh in on that choice, he noted.
“I think it gives everybody a chance to say their piece,” he said.
Today’s meeting will be the first for Lawton Jordan III, nephew of former White House chief of staff Hamilton Jordan, named by Deal last month to replace former U.S. Attorney Kent Alexander on the commission.
It may also be the last meeting as chairman for Abernethy, whose term expires in August. The commission is scheduled today to choose its chairman for 2014.
The commission might not want to name a new chairman to serve just eight months. If they do, “then I’m happy to serve,” Abernethy said. “If they ask me to do it, I’ll do it.”