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Greg Bluestein

Ethics agency head critiques Nathan Deal’s overhaul plan

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The head of Georgia’s embattled ethics commission has a word of caution for Gov. Nathan Deal’s plan to more than double the size of the board.

Holly LaBerge said Wednesday she hasn’t seen Deal’s full proposal but she has “concerns about the size of the board being more people than the agency employs as full-time employees.”

Holly LaBerge, executive secretary of the state ethics commission, testifies in the whistle blower lawsuit brought by Stacey Kalberman, the ethics commission’s former top staffer. Kalberman claimed she was forced from her position after investigating Gov. Nathan Deal's campaign. Brant Sanderlin, bsanderlin@ajc.com

Holly LaBerge, executive secretary of the state ethics commission, testifies in the whistle blower lawsuit brought by Stacey Kalberman, the ethics commission’s former top staffer. Kalberman claimed she was forced from her position after investigating Gov. Nathan Deal’s campaign. Brant Sanderlin, bsanderlin@ajc.com

Deal unveiled a plan this week to replace the five-person commission with 12 members appointed by the judicial, executive and legislative branches. The members would not be allowed to hear any cases involving their branch of government to reduce conflicts of interest. He also pledged to increase funding for the agency, calling an overhaul “overdue.”

It was a surprising turn that came after a jury sided with LaBerge’s predecessor, Stacey Kalberman, over claims she was too vigorously investigating complaints stemming from Deal’s 2010 run. That $700,000 jury award has left a deep imprint on the governor’s race.

The ethics commission only has a handful of employees and no staff attorney with the recent departure of Elisabeth Murray-Obertein. And LaBerge, who is at the center of several pending whistleblower lawsuits, is increasingly in the middle of a campaign fight. Several former staffers accuse LaBerge of bragging of helping Deal make more serious complaints disappear; she and the governor have denied the complaints.

Seeing a potential opening, Democrat Jason Carter, his party’s nominee for governor, held a press conference Tuesday calling on Attorney General Sam Olens and the ethics commission to reopen the probe into the 2010 complaints.

Olens’ office declined to comment and LaBerge said she doesn’t have the authority to reopen a case that commissioners have already voted on. We reached out to each of the commissioners, but have so far only heard back from the newest member.

Lawton Jordan III told us that his read of the law doesn’t give the commission authority to reopen investigations that have been previously resolved. His voice has added significance because he’s the lone Democrat appointee on the five-member panel.

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