Within minutes after a Fulton County jury returned a devastating verdict against the state ethics commission last week, Gov. Nathan Deal’s aides were already trying to put their own spin on the story.
Deal wasn’t the one, they said, who had forced the ethics commission director out of her job while she was trying to investigate complaints that had been filed against Deal’s 2010 campaign for governor.
It’s not his fault that the state is now on the hook to pay Stacey Kalberman nearly $1 million because of the verdict in that whistleblower lawsuit (the jury awarded her $700,000 in damages plus attorney’s fees and court costs).
This was merely “an internal dispute between former employees and former commissioners,” said a statement from the governor’s office. “Who the commission employed as staff had no relevance to the Deal for governor case.”
I know they won’t listen to me, but I’ll offer some advice to the governor’s staffers: Don’t waste your time trying to spin this.
Kalberman and her chief investigator were forced out of their jobs when they tried to investigate complaints filed against the Deal campaign. They lost their jobs because of actions taken by an ethics commission whose majority is appointed by the governor. No matter what Deal’s people say, the average voter isn’t going to believe that the governor’s fingerprints weren’t all over this.
You can be sure Deal’s opponents aren’t going to let voters forget this either.
Shortly after the bombshell verdict came down, state school Superintendent John Barge was demanding that Deal withdraw from the Republican primary (where he is opposed by Barge and former Dalton Mayor David Pennington).
“The governor is in the middle of all this mess,” Barge said. “It is time for the governor to step aside, settle for one term and let us get Georgia back on track.”
Pennington was next: “Nathan Deal’s abuses of power, ethics flaws, and strong-arm, good old boy politics no longer have a place in our state. If we Republicans actually want to defeat Jason Carter this November, we must ensure an ethical conservative is on the top of the ticket.”
Carter, the Democratic nominee, had his say as well: “We need leaders we can trust to put Georgia citizens ahead of their own personal gain, and we need an ethics commission that is free to do its job without fear of this sort of politically motivated retaliation.”
You’ll be hearing variations of those themes repeated often between now and the May 20 primary.
There is also another whistleblower lawsuit on the way to trial that was filed by Kalberman’s chief investigator, Sherilyn Streicker — which means the story could be played out in court again during the upcoming campaigns, unless the state settles this case.
As it happens, I was one of the reporters who covered the ethics commission meetings back in 2011 when the fates of Kalberman and Streicker were decided. It appeared to me then that this was an instance where an elected official’s supporters were trying to kill an investigation that might be politically harmful to that official. The jury obviously agreed with that interpretation.
The ethics commission members certainly killed the investigation, but in doing so they touched off a long legal proceeding that is still unfolding in Fulton County Superior Court, much to Deal’s detriment.
The jury verdict and the ongoing ethics commission controversies have seriously wounded Deal, but this is a wound that was largely self-inflicted.
If Deal had conceded three years ago that his campaign made some mistakes, and if he had agreed to pay a fine of $30,000 or so to settle the matter, no one would have lost their job and no lawsuit would have been filed. There would have been no embarrassing trial with all of its damaging disclosures and the matter would have been out of the public eye by now.
Instead, Deal has handed his critics a big club that they can use to beat on him constantly between now and election day.
The story will continue to play out in the state’s media outlets as well, providing more reminders of this fiasco.
What looked like a smooth path to Deal’s reelection a couple of months ago suddenly became a lot rockier.