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Jim GallowayJim Galloway

Holly LaBerge’s memo and the queasy politics of ethics

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The Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission is a quasi-judicial agency – with a heavy emphasis on the “quasi,” as this week’s developments have shown.

To the point of queasiness.

Once upon a time, we had a State Ethics Commission to keep track of how money shapes Georgia politics. But four years ago, the word “ethics” was disappeared by an act of the Legislature and the signature of an exiting Gov. Sonny Perdue.

The renaming of the agency wasn’t accidental. It was cultural.

And it lies at the root of the sudden problem for Gov. Nathan Deal, posed by a 2012 memo that until Monday had been conveniently hidden from sight within the “transparency” commission and elsewhere.

To you and me, ethics is a matter of right or wrong, good behavior or misbehavior. The topic is food for teachers and preachers, and is best served giraffe-high.

But in the goat-level language of the state Capitol, ethics is merely politics conducted by other means.

Gov. Nathan Deal/Kent D. Johnson, kdjohnson@ajc.com

Gov. Nathan Deal/Kent D. Johnson, kdjohnson@ajc.com

Got a beef with your opposition in the primary? File a complaint with what we once called the state ethics commission. Accuse him of fudging on donations he’s accepted or spent. It’ll earn you a headline, won’t cost a penny and will take years to resolve.

It is a highly cynical view — sometimes correct, sometimes not — that can produce a highly cynical defense.

Which brings us to Holly LaBerge’s now-famous memo, and a backstory destined to become campaign boilerplate:

Shortly after Deal was sworn in as governor in 2011, a number of complaints were filed – some by gadflies, some not – with the, er, transparency commission, alleging that the new governor hadn’t followed all the rules when collecting or spending his campaign cash.

Things usually move slowly at the transparency commission – not surprising, given agency funding cuts. (Something like shooting an unwanted employee in the leg, then docking his pay for limping.)

But by the spring of 2011, Stacey Kalberman, the transparency commission’s executive secretary, and her No. 2 began to prepare subpoenas aimed at the Deal campaign. They were sacked.

Funding cuts were said to be the reason, and the governor’s office assured us that the commission is an independent agency over which Deal holds no sway. Three years later, the story did not impress a jury. You and I are now paying $3 million to Kalberman, three other employees and their attorneys for wrongful termination.

Kalberman was replaced by LaBerge – who was recruited by a member of the governor’s staff before the Great Sacking.

A resolution of the Deal complaints crept forward, and was scheduled for a July 23, 2012, hearing. Seven days before, LaBerge received a series of communications from the Deal camp.

If the judicial nature of the transparency commission were dominant, the call would have been from Randy Evans, the attorney for the campaign. But the “quasi” nature of the commission held sway.

First came a text message from Chris Riley, chief of staff for the governor. Then a text and call from Ryan Teague, Deal’s staff counsel and the fellow who recruited LaBerge for her job. Neither had a formal connection to the governor’s campaign. Both clout-heavy aides are paid by you and me.

State Sen. Jason Carter at a press conference near the state Capitol on Tuesday, reacting to allegations by the head of the state ethics commission that she was threatened to "make the complaints" against the governor "go away, " according to a memo she wrote. Hyosub Shin, hshin@ajc.com

State Sen. Jason Carter at a press conference near the state Capitol on Tuesday, reacting to allegations by the head of the state ethics commission that she was threatened to “make the complaints” against the governor “go away, ” according to a memo she wrote. Hyosub Shin, hshin@ajc.com

Teague offered a low-ball settlement, with a carrot that LaBerge included in her memo:

“Ryan informed me that it was not in the agency’s best interest for these cases to go to a hearing Monday; nor was it in their best political interest either, and that our rule-making authority may not happen if the complaints were not resolved prior to Monday.”

The transparency commission’s ability to make rules regarding the use and gathering of campaign cash had been restricted by state lawmakers a few years earlier. Restoration of that authority was a top priority. The commission’s chairman, Kevin Abernethy, had written an opinion piece on the topic for this newspaper only a few days earlier.

Teague’s threat, as alleged by LaBerge: Play ball or remain a hamstrung agency stripped of almost all influence.

On July 23, the transparency commission levied $3,500 in fees on the Deal campaign for technical violations, and dismissed all other complaints. The commission’s rule-making authority was restored when the Legislature next met.

The governor has found no fault with how his aides approached LaBerge. On Tuesday, as his Democratic opponent, Jason Carter, was about to unload on him, the governor made this observation:

“I was hoping [Carter] would have a press conference …to explain why he was soliciting campaign funds for governor before the General Assembly session is over. Which is a clear violation of campaign laws,” Deal said.

Like I said — at the Capitol, ethics and politics are entwined to the point that one topic is indistinguishable from the other.

Another thing: If the judicial nature of our quasi-judicial transparency commission were dominant, the threats alleged by LaBerge, as recorded in her memo, would have been entered into the record of the commission’s deliberations. Or the memo would have been released in response to multiple requests by this and other news outlets. It was not.

LaBerge pocketed the information — an apparent act of political self-protection — for a year before handing it to Attorney General Sam Olens, who now faces criticism himself for failing to disclose it.

Perhaps it is time to restore the word “ethics” to that non-transparent commission. It might not have any immediate effect, but it could give us something to shoot for.

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