Political Notes – After getting slapped with huge verdict, Deal urges changes in ethics commission

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Gov. Nathan Deal called Monday for structural changes in the state ethics commission that would make it more independent of the governor’s office in future attempts to investigate campaign financing complaints.

While on a stopover in Athens to talk about economic development, Deal chatted with reporters about a makeover for the controversy-plagued ethics commission.

“It is very clear that we have had a very ineffective commission in terms of being able to deal with cases appropriately and in the fashion they should be dealt with,” Deal said.

Deal is proposing that the board be expanded from five to 12 members with the three branches of state each appointing four members.

“With the composition of a commission such as I have outlined, you would eliminate any possibility of anyone claiming there was a conflict of interest,” Deal said.

Deal’s communications office later sent out a statement from the governor:

““I appreciate the time and talent given to the commission by its current members. They are public servants with great integrity.

“Even a strong team with good intent falls short when the system itself is broken, and I do think the system is broken here. It appears the commission hasn’t acted on any cases in several months, even though a backlog of cases exists. That’s not fair to candidates facing frivolous complaints who have a cloud hanging over them because their cases stay in limbo. . .

“I would like to see the commission exercise those powers. Candidates need clarity to navigate often confusing rules, and the lack of clarity has led to a ‘gotcha’ culture where complaints to the commission have become standard fare on both sides of the aisle for political gamesmanship.”

The governor may be in the position of someone trying to lock the barn door after the horses have escaped.  Three days before he suggested the commission changes, that same commission was on the wrong side of a huge jury verdict in a Fulton County Superior Court civil trial.

In a verdict that could be damaging to Deal’s reelection campaign, the jury found that the ethics commission had forced former director Stacey Kalberman out of her job in 2011 for trying to investigate complaints filed against Deal’s 2010 campaign.

The state will have to pay Kalberman $700,000 in damages plus attorney’s fees, the jury decided after a five-day trial.

A majority of the ethics commission’s current five members are appointed by the governor, which means Deal will get plenty of criticism for the Kalberman lawsuit and ensuing jury verdict.

In fact, former Dalton mayor David Pennington, state school Supt. John Barge and state Sen. Jason Carter were all attacking Deal within an hour after the jury verdict was announced late Friday afternoon.

Olens too?

While it hasn’t been mentioned by the pundits yet, Friday’s verdict could have been equally damaging to state Attorney General Sam Olens, whose staff lawyers represented the state in the whistleblower lawsuit.

Olens has now been on the losing end of two politically embarrassing – and expensive – lawsuits in Fulton Superior Court involving the state.

He had state Sen. Don Balfour (R-Snellville) indicted last fall on numerous fraud counts related to the filing of inaccurate expense accounts with the legislative fiscal office.

Balfour was acquitted in a December trial, however, that was prosecuted by Olens’ office.  The presiding judge ordered the state to pay Balfour more than $156,000 in attorneys fees.

Olens’ lawyers have now lost a second high-profile case in which the state was ordered to pay the winning party $700,000 in damages and attorneys’ fees that could drive the final total above the $1 million mark.

Greg Hecht, the Democratic candidate for attorney general, will have some ammunition to use against Olens in the general election campaign.

© 2014 by The Georgia Report

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Tags: civil lawsuits , Don Balfour , Fulton County Superior Court , Nathan Deal , Sam Olens , Stacey Kalberman , State Ethics Commission