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State ethics agency to meet today
Panel will hear concerns over complaints about governor

ATLANTA — The state ethics commission is set to meet Friday and will discuss complaints involving Gov. Nathan Deal that are now at the center of two lawsuits by a pair of former agency employees.
    The Deal investigation has loomed over the ethics commission for nearly two years. Last week, Stacey Kalberman, the agency's former director, and her deputy sued the ethics commission, claiming they were forced out in retaliation for their efforts to investigate Deal's campaign finances.
    The panel, formally called the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, is set to consider five complaints against Deal, including one that dealt with his use of campaign money to pay for legal fees related to a congressional ethics probe. Another concerns whether he accepted campaign contributions that exceeded state limits.
    Current director Holly LaBerge declined comment Thursday on the investigation.
    Deal has denied any wrongdoing, and Georgia's inspector general found last year that Deal played no role in the departure of Kalberman or her deputy Sherilyn Streicker. Kalberman and Streicker filed the lawsuits on June 8, nearly a year after the ethics commission voted to slash her salary by about 30 percent and eliminate Streicker's position. Soon afterward, Kalberman announced her departure, but said she was left with no choice but to resign.
    The commission said the cuts were a cost-saving measure. The ethics commission saw its funding slashed 42 percent between 2008 and 2011, from a height of $1.8 million to a low of $1.1 million over the past decade.
    The fiscal year 2013 budget, effective July 1, restores about $243,000 to the agency — bringing its budget to $1.3 million.
    Commissioner Kent Alexander called the budget increase "a breath of fresh air." Commission Chairman Kevin Abernethy said the cuts from recent years also meant a loss of about half the agency's staff.
    "It has hindered investigations," Abernethy said. "We're just not able to do things as fast as we once were. But we have followed our statutory obligations. We are actively handling and resolving cases right now."
    LaBerge declined comment on the budget cuts.
    "I can't speak to cuts that happened prior to my coming on board," she said in a phone interview with The Associated Press.
    The agency accepted fewer complaints between 2008 and 2011, but still has more than 130 open cases dating back nearly a decade. About 30 of those cases are with the Office of the Attorney General.
    Commissioners are not involved with the agency's day-to-day activities. Currently, the ethics commission has an 11-member staff. LaBerge — who replaced Kalberman — also serves as the open records officer.
    Abernethy said the new funding will be used to hire personnel and make upgrades to the commission's IT system.

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