Grand jury looking into ethics complaint against Ga. governor

December 12, 2013

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) speaks at the closing of the GA 400 Toll Plaza, Nov. 22, 2013, in Atlanta. (Jason Gertz/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via Associated Press )

At least three current and former employees of Georgia’s state ethics commission have received grand jury subpoenas related to a complaint filed against Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal’s (R) 2010 campaign, the Associated Press reported Thursday.

The grand jury, scheduled to meet next month, will receive documents relating to an ethics investigation that cleared Deal of major wrongdoing. Deal’s campaign agreed to pay $3,350 in fees over violations to the state’s campaign finance and disclosure laws.

Deal’s attorney, Randy Evans, said the governor is “not involved” and hasn’t received any communication from the U.S. Attorney’s office or the FBI.

But it’s not the first time the investigation into Deal’s campaign has been the center of legal attention. After the matter was settled, two former commission staffers alleged retaliation after they sought approval to issue subpoenas of their own. The former employees said in sworn testimony that Deal had helped recruit Holly LaBerge, the ethics commission’s executive secretary, and that LaBerge claimed Deal “owes her” for handling the complaints, AP said.

Deal has denied knowing LaBerge, who was tapped to head the commission after her predecessor was fired after telling commissioners she planned to subpoena documents. The commission slashed their own budget and eliminated the predecessor’s position.

LaBerge, ethics commission staff attorney Elisabeth Murray-Obertein and former staffer John Hair have all received subpoenas in the case, AP reported.

During the initial ethics investigation, Murray-Obertein recommended up to a $70,000 fine against Deal, along with further investigation into the allegations. Hair claimed he was fired after being asked to remove documents from the case file; Hair raised questions about the request after the documents weren’t replaced.

Deal won election in 2010 after finishing second in the Republican primary, then winning outright in a runoff against then-Secretary of State Karen Handel (R), who is now running for U.S. Senate. Deal beat former governor Roy Barnes (D) by 10 points in the general election. Earlier this year he signed an ethics reform package that gave Georgia’s campaign finance watchdog greater powers and increases transparency on campaign donations.

Democrats hope they can make Georgia into a competitive race in 2014. The party will lean on state Sen. Jason Carter (D), the grandson of former President Jimmy Carter. Deal will face state schools Superintendent John Barge, with whom he has clashed over Common Core, in the May 20 GOP primary.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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Reid Wilson · December 12, 2013