ATLANTA — The head of Georgia’s ethics commission, who is accused of intervening in a case involving Gov. Nathan Deal, received pay raises despite being hired as the agency said it had to cut costs, according to records reviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The salary of the commission’s executive secretary, Holly LaBerge, increased from $85,000 when she started work in September 2011, to $92,000 the following year. She was earning $100,000 by June. By comparison, LaBerge’s predecessor quit after absorbing a 30 percent pay cut and later filed a lawsuit alleging that she was punished for aggressively pursuing the investigation involving Deal.
LaBerge declined to comment to the newspaper and could not be immediately reached for comment by The Associated Press Friday.
Current and former staffers have given sworn testimony accusing LaBerge of ordering the removal of documents from the case file and meeting with top Deal aides while the probe was ongoing. According to the testimony, LaBerge said that the governor “owed her one” after she claimed to have made ethics complaints against him “go away.”
Deal said he barely knows LaBerge and denied that she did him any favors. He settled complaints related to the campaign by paying a $3,350 penalty.
The accusations emerged in testimony from the commission’s former computer specialist, John Hair, and its current attorney, Elisabeth Murray-Obertein. They were ordered to testify as part of whistleblower lawsuits filed by the commission’s former executive director, Stacey Kalberman, and her former top deputy, Sherilyn Streicker.
Kalberman and Streicker said they were ready to move forward with the investigation involving Deal’s campaign. Then the agency’s commissioners voted to cut Kalberman’s salary by nearly 30 percent and eliminate Streicker’s job. At the time, the commissioners said it was a cost-cutting move to solve a budget crisis.
Kalberman ultimately resigned. She and Streicker filed lawsuits alleging they were punished for pursuing the probe involving the governor.
LaBerge testified that she received a phone call from the governor’s office asking whether she was interested in heading the commission even before the job was open. The commission was intended as an independent watchdog agency overseeing campaign finance and lobbying. It is supposed to hire its own director.
The commission did experience deep budget cuts. Its funding was reduced 41 percent from 2007 to 2012, although Deal and lawmakers since then approved a budget that gave it back roughly $240,000.
Ethics commission Chairman Kevin Abernethy and Vice Chairwoman Hillary Stringfellow said that LaBerge increased the agency’s legislative funding by more than $100,000 since arriving. They said LaBerge has successfully collected late fees, generating about $253,000 for the state treasury.