Ethics commission delays ruling on Deal complaints

ATLANTA -- The state ethics commission has delayed ruling on several complaints against Gov. Nathan Deal, whose attorney is seeking guidance from the agency to resolve two of the issues.

The Georgia Government and Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission was expected to resolve five complaints against Deal, including three dating to 2010 filed during the gubernatorial election. Staff attorney Elisabeth Murray-Obertein told commissioners most of the complaints could be resolved at the agency's July 23rd meeting.

"Based on the investigation, we placed these cases on the agenda today hoping we would be able to resolve one, if not all of them," Murray-Obertein said. "Today, we are not ready to proceed. For several reasons, we are not going to be able to dispose of the cases today."

One of the 2010 complaints dealt with his use of campaign money to pay for legal fees related to a congressional ethics probe. Another dealt with his disclosure of aircraft use. The third concerned whether he accepted campaign contributions that exceeded state limits.

Murray-Obertein joined the staff of the ethics commission about six months ago and said she has been working with Deal's lawyer, Randy Evans, to investigate the allegations. On two complaints, Evans is seeking an advisory opinion from the ethics commission as to how to proceed. Evans told commissioners the opinions could be "used as a vehicle to solve the problem and not kick the can down the road."

The complaints against Deal are now at the center of two lawsuits by a pair of former ethics commission employees who claim they were pushed out of the agency as retaliation under the Georgia Whistleblower Act. Ex-executive secretary Stacey Kalberman and her deputy, Sherry Streicker, filed lawsuits on June 8, nearly a year after the ethics commission voted to slash Kalberman's salary by about 30 percent and eliminate Streicker's position.

Ethics commission chairman Kevin Abernethy addressed the lawsuits at the beginning of Friday's meeting, saying "I'm not going to comment on frivolous litigation ... but I look forward to getting those resolved as quickly as possible and getting back to the good work the commission has started."

During the hearing, which lasted more than three hours, the commission took up other complaints involving current and former state officials.

The commission ruled that former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes was not guilty of ethics violations in a 2010 complaint that accused him of not filing lobbyist reports. Barnes, who represented himself at the hearing, told commissioners he registered as a lobbyist only out of an abundance of caution in 2007 when working for a local government as a private attorney.

"This is a good example of no good deed going unpunished," Barnes told the panel. "My problem here is I was not required to register at all. I don't lobby. I refuse to lobby. I will never lobby."

Instead, Barnes asserted, he seeks to influence and persuade in his capacity as an attorney. After the hearing, Barnes blasted the Legislature for refusing to implement more serious ethics reform -- including restoring rulemaking authority to the ethics commission.

"I don't think the General Assembly is serious about ethics at all," said Barnes, Georgia's last Democratic governor who left office in 2003 and lost a bid to return to the post in 2010. "I think the General Assembly needs to decide whether its serious about transparency or not."

He pointed out that the complaint was filed two weeks ahead of the 2010 gubernatorial election. The ethics panel found that the law was somewhat unclear and relied on a prior advisory opinion that lawyers are not necessarily lobbyists.

The ethics commission also agreed to a consent order in a complaint against a lobbyist who paid more than $14,000 to take House Speaker David Ralston, his family and members of his staff to Germany in November 2010. At issue was whether James C. Brady should have filed as a lobbyist and disclosed the expenditures in a timely manner.

Brady disclosed the trip in January 2011 after registering as a lobbyist for that year, but was not registered at the time of the trip. His attorney argued that because the trip was not related to existing or pending legislation, Brady was not lobbying, but leading a fact-finding mission about high-speed rail.

William Perry, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, told commissioners Brady violated the law and should face a penalty.

"It is abundantly clear that this was a lobbyist, engaged in lobbying," said Perry, who brought the complaint.

Under the terms of the consent order, Brady must pay $100 for each of the three complaints filed in relation to the allegation within 30 days of the ruling.

The ethics commission also voted to refer a complaint to an administrative hearing against former Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, a Republican candidate for governor in 2009. The complaint alleged Oxendine's campaign took $120,000 in contributions in 2009 from 10 Alabama-based political action committees connected to a pair of insurance companies.

Oxendine has denied wrongdoing and returned the money after the contributions were reported in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.