One by one, business owners said in court this week they felt intimidated by DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis when he asked for campaign contributions, and they feared losing work from the county if they didn’t pay up.
The ethics lawsuit that rocked state government was filed under a special whistleblower provision that granted the former head of the state watchdog agency legal protections. The governor suggested Tuesday he wants to more narrowly define who can file these types of lawsuits.
He said he was particularly concerned that the court’s ruling automatically granted whistleblower status to government employees charged with investigating state agencies and employees.
“It’s certainly something that I think we need to look at – the circumstances that give rise to giving whistle-blower status to people who are charged with investigations. If that is the definition of who’s entitled to be a whistleblower, than you have the inspector general’s office and you have the ethics commission, all of whom by the very nature of their job description, make them investigators. If by that job description we’ve automatically made them whistle-blowers, then that’s something that ought to be investigated as well.”
Kalberman claimed in her lawsuit that she was forced from office because she too vigorously investigated complaints involving Deal’s 2010 campaign, and a jury in April agreed after a week-long trial. Deal has said throughout he has nothing to do with the ethics agency and its inner workings.
The governor said as he was leaving to attend a board meeting that he hoped to have a “discussion” with lawmakers about narrowing the definition for who can bring these types of complaints.
An aide said tightening the definition of whistleblower could be included in a broader overhaul of the ethics agency that Deal unveiled shortly after the Kalberman verdict. One possibility could be excluding a range of state employees from bringing these complaints.
Democrat Jason Carter, Deal’s challenger in November, said any changes to the whistleblower definition would lead to a “weaker ethics law” and lead to more corruption.
“The key to avoiding this type of settlement is less misconduct – not fewer whistleblowers,” he said.