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Our Views: Watching state's wayward watchdogs
Georgia is overdue to clean up ethics agency mess, create independent, effective commission
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gainesvilletimes.com
. The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs and Editor Keith Albertson.

It is both telling and troubling that the state agency assigned to police ethical behavior in government hasn’t been able to mind its own store.

And that needs to change.

The ethics commission, formerly known as the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, remains embroiled in legal disputes, faulty leadership and ineffectiveness.

Last week, it fired director Holly LaBerge after she was cited for failing to provide evidence in a whistleblower lawsuit brought against the state by her predecessor. Fulton County Superior Judge Ural Glanville fined her and the attorney general’s office $10,000 each for failing to disclose memos detailing conversations between her and aides for Gov. Nathan Deal.

In his ruling, Glanville called LaBerge “dishonest and non-transparent,” not qualities the state needs in someone charged with investigating ethical behavior among public servants.

The earlier case by former director Stacey Kalberman and two other staff members led to damages totaling $1.8 million over the ethics probe they claim Deal’s staff tried to thwart. LaBerge later filed her own whistleblower suit claiming the same type of interference.

Meanwhile, the commission remains stuck in limbo and cases have been backing up.

This is hardly what Georgians expect from a commission created to make sure public officials follow the rules of ethical behavior and serve the state legally and honorably.

It all began with an investigation into campaign finance allegations against Deal from his first run for the office four years ago. Kalberman claimed the governor’s aides pressured her to quash an investigation into campaign finance violations and ultimately pushed her out. She filed a lawsuit against the state and won a $700,000 judgment.

Kalberman was replaced as head of the agency by LaBerge, whom Deal administration officials allegedly encouraged to seek the position. Testimony in Kalberman’s suit and the others indicated LaBerge admitted she obstructed the Deal investigation, saying he “owes" her. But LaBerge later claimed Deal aides pressured her as well to dispense with the charges.

And the irony is that the ethics case at the crux of it all turned out to be a relatively minor matter, for which Deal’s campaign was found guilty only of “technical defects” and assessed a small fine of $3,350.

The main issue is whether a sitting governor and his staff, or any elected or appointed official, should be able to influence an ethics investigation or even give the appearance of doing so. Even if the attempt, as Deal’s aides claim, was to get a read on the progress of the case and not sway it, such contact during an investigation crosses a barrier that should remain in place around any panel charged with keeping leaders in line.

The fact the governor’s staff members were in contact first with Kalberman, then LaBerge, reveal a tin ear and a blind eye toward the idea such correspondence would be viewed as old-style political arm-twisting.

Deal since has vowed in a second term to boost funding for the ethics commission and allow it to operate as fully independent agency. Even if it seems to be closing the barn door after the cows are gone, it’s a welcome step toward creating more transparency and accountability. Members of the commission have claimed that budget restraints, more than troubled leadership, have kept it from effectively investigating cases and doling out penalties.

Among the many reasons so many Americans don’t vote or participate in their government, chief among them may well be cynicism. From Watergate through Iran-Contra, Monica Lewinsky to the present-day scandals in Washington, unethical behavior by elected officials has led many to believe that self-serving skullduggery is their default behavior.

Candidates who vow to be open and clean as a baby’s smile too often are corrupted by power and act to fill their pockets or those of their financial backers instead of serving constituents. Over time, it’s hard to imagine a government operated any other way.

Of course, there are honorable people in public service, even those who make occasional mistakes they must pay for. They should be the most diligent in insisting on an independent, aggressive approach to policing government officials and holding their feet to the fire when they break the rules. Otherwise, all are tainted by the behavior of a few.

This issue already has reared its head in the governor’s race, Democrat Jason Carter working to depict Deal’s problems as an ethical failure that should lead voters to deny him a second term. That is in the eye of the beholder, though it surely will distract from the debate of other key issues in the race.

With LaBerge now gone, the ethics board needs a new leader and a new direction. The governor and General Assembly should make this a priority next year and work to clean up this unholy mess. And voters need to hold them to it. If we can’t trust the people we elect to conduct themselves properly and follow clearly defined rules to do so, we’ll never get the type of government this state needs.

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