ATLANTA — The head of the state ethics commission claims an attorney for Gov. Nathan Deal once threatened to thwart efforts to expand the agency's authority unless she made complaints against the governor "go away," according to a memo obtained Monday from the Attorney General's Office.
In the memo, Holly LaBerge, the commission's executive secretary, wrote that the threat came during a July 2012 call with Deal's chief counsel, Ryan Teague. At the time, commission staff and Deal's attorneys were discussing ethics complaints filed against Deal concerning his personal and campaign finance disclosures during the 2010 campaign.
LaBerge wrote that Teague told her it wasn't in their or the agency's best interest for the cases to proceed to a hearing and said efforts to restore the agency's rule-making authority might not happen if the complaints weren't resolved.
"I responded by expressing my surprise that the threat of rule-making being withheld was being used to make the complaints go away," LaBerge wrote in the memo, which was sent to the Attorney General's Office in mid-2013, a year after the phone call.
The ethics complaints and allegations that the governor's office meddled in commission business have been at the center of a handful of lawsuits filed in recent years by former commission employees who say they were retaliated against. One former employee claimed LaBerge boasted the governor "owes her" for making the complaints go away. Deal has denied knowing LaBerge and has said he doesn't owe her anything. He has also denied any involvement in commission business.
Deal's personal attorney, Randy Evans, said Monday that LaBerge's memo proves negotiations between the governor's attorneys and commission staff were contentious and refutes any allegation LaBerge gave the governor a pass. He noted the case went to a full hearing before the commission, which dismissed the most serious complaints. Deal paid $3,350 in administrative fees to settle the rest.
"The staff disagreed with us, fought us at every turn, argued at the hearing and then lost," Evans said, adding he and Teague were just vigorously representing Deal. "As defense lawyers, what are we supposed to do? We first try to convince them, then we pressure them and if necessary we beat them. They certainly didn't give in."
Deal's spokesman, Brian Robinson, said the memo supports the governor's assertion the commission and its staff didn't grant him any favors.
"The fact that it took two years, stiff legal bills and a file full of negotiations with our attorneys to dismiss baseless claims shows that we were aggressively scrutinized, and our case won on its merits," Robinson said in a statement.
An attorney for LaBerge informed commissioners last week that she had granted a TV interview to defend herself after becoming "increasingly frustrated over the misrepresentations and false allegations," according to a letter obtained from the governor's office through an open records request.
Lawyer Lee Parks said in the letter that LaBerge was speaking out under the state's whistleblower law and wanted to make sure she would not be retaliated against.
In the Fox 5 interview airing Monday, LaBerge said she was tired of being accused of carrying out favors on Deal's behalf.
"If I'm a puppet put there to make his legal problems go away, why would his legal counsel have to call me up and threaten me? Shouldn't his legal counsel be able to say, 'Remember the deal: You're the puppet. We're pulling the strings,'" LaBerge told Fox 5.
LaBerge referred all questions to her attorneys. Parks was unavailable and his co-counsel Travis Foust declined comment. Teague didn't respond to an email seeking comment.
In the memo, LaBerge also referenced a text exchange with Deal's chief of staff, Chris Riley, who asked whether the complaints could be resolved by that Monday. Evans said Riley, who didn't return a call seeking comment, was just trying to find out whether the governor needed to be in Atlanta that day to sign any documents as part of resolving the case.
The commission in June announced plans to settle with three former employees after a civil jury sided with the commission's former executive secretary, who claimed her salary was cut and her deputy's position eliminated as the two were preparing to issue subpoenas in the Deal case.
Those subpoenas were never issued. Commissioners have said they received the information needed to resolve the complaints without subpoenas.
Meanwhile, it remains unclear whether federal investigators remain interested in the commission and its handling of the Deal complaints. Late last year, federal prosecutors issued subpoenas for commission documents related to the Deal complaints but officials with the U.S. Attorney's Office have continued to decline to comment.