Deal: Ethics allegations ‘false,’ AJC doesn’t even qualify as a ‘fishwrapper’

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Gov. Nathan Deal said Thursday that allegations of interference by his office into an ethics commission investigation are false and “totally unsubstantiated,” attacking the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for publishing the page one article.

“It’s just part of the downward spiral by the AJC,” Deal said, adding that the quality of the newspaper’s reporting has declined so much that “soon, the newspaper won’t even qualify as a fishwrapper, which is what Lester Maddox used to call them.”

“I am so regretful of the decline I have seen in the reporting of the AJC,” the governor told a gaggle of reporters at the capitol. “I am so disappointed at the way they’ve handled all these allegations, which are totally unsubstantiated and are false.”

The AJC printed a story in Thursday’s edition that dredged up a controversy from 2011 regarding the state ethics commission and its handling of an investigation into complaints filed against Deal’s 2010 campaign for governor.

In the midst of that 2011 investigation, the ethics commission members refused to approve subpoenas drafted by commission staffers. The commission’s chief investigator was dismissed and the executive secretary was forced to resign during that period of turmoil.

The AJC article alleged that the current head of the ethics commission staff, Holly LaBerge, “ordered documents removed from the official state investigative file on Deal and met with top aides to the Republican governor while the probe was ongoing.”

The article also alleged:

After assuming the job, LaBerge bragged of her relationship with Deal and said she had made the governor’s legal troubles evaporate, employees told the AJC.

“Now he owes me. I made this go away,” staff attorney Elisabeth Murray-Obertein said she heard LaBerge say after the commission levied a $3,350 penalty against the governor. That’s well below the $70,000 fine Murray-Obertein originally recommended.

Ex-commission computer specialist John Hair told a similar story. He said he was forced out of his job after refusing to remove documents from Deal’s ethics file.

“She said she made Governor Deal’s legal problems go away and now he owes her, and that I need to ask myself how much I want to continue being a part of the ethics commission,” Hair told the AJC.

Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson (D-Tucker) has requested the GBI to investigate the ethics commission’s handling of the complaint against the Deal campaign.

“Naming your own appointees to an ethics commission when you are under investigation is simply wrong,” Henson said. “Ethics enforcement in Georgia should not be biased and controlled by the very people it’s investigating.”

“Governor Deal has demonstrated a pattern of misconduct,” Senate Minority Whip Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta) said. “From his congressional days, now through his term as Governor, Deal has demonstrated that he has a disregard for the rules.”

Deal said the ethics commission’s actions on the complaints – which eventually resulted in Deal paying a $3,350 fine – were the result of decisions made by the commission members, not the staff.

He also denied knowing or influencing the commission in its decision to hire LaBerge as executive secretary.

“I did not know the person who was ultimately appointed, probably wouldn’t recognize her if I saw her now,” Deal said. “For somebody that I don’t know, I don’t see how I could owe her anything.”

Stacy Kalberman, who was forced out as the ethics commission’s chief staffer in 2011, later filed a lawsuit challenging her dismissal, a matter that is still pending in Fulton County Superior Court.

“The AJC is disrespectful not just of the ethics commission, but of the courts of this state,” said Deal, who characterized Kalberman as a “disgruntled employee.”

Deal’s diatribe is part of a longstanding capitol tradition in which the governor attacks the Atlanta newspapers and other media outlets for their reporting.

Unlike Sonny Perdue, whose face used to turn purple-red with anger when he denounced reporters, Deal occasionally let slip a grin as he pummeled the AJC, appearing to enjoy the verbal jousting.

© 2013 by The Georgia Report

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Tags: Atlanta Journal-Constitution , ethics complaint , Holly LaBerge , Nathan Deal , Stacy Kalberman , State Ethics Commission