Today, he and his office are embroiled in a high-profile controversy over a recently-released memo from state Ethics Commission chair Holly LaBerge, in which she claims that aides to Gov. Nathan Deal threatened her to bring their boss’ ethics complaints to a satisfactory conclusion.
Whether he likes it or not — and I suspect he does not — the attorney general has been caught in the middle of a political mud fight.
Olens is being criticized by some and defended by others over why his office did not release this memo to the attorneys for LaBerge’s predecessor, Stacy Kalberman, who filed a whistleblower suit and won a $1 million judgment. Olens says the document was not discoverable within the parameters of the plaintiff’s request.
His supporters maintain the staff attorneys who made that recommendation have served under both Attorneys General Michael Bowers, a Republican, and Thurbert Baker, a Democrat and, thus, was not about politics.
Olens supporters say also the AG can’t fully tell his side of the story because his office has represented Ms. LaBerge in an official capacity and there is a client-attorney relationship that prohibits his disclosing all the information which they believe would more clearly explain his decision. The AG says he requested Ms. LaBerge waive that privilege. She has chosen not to do so on the advice of her attorney. Olens states he finds this “frustrating.” So do his supporters.
They point to comments from Ben Easterlin, a past president of the State Bar Association and a partner in the prestigious King & Spalding law firm in Atlanta, who said the memo “was not responsive to the discovery requests and it would have been irresponsible to have produced it and it would be a violation of the Office of the Attorney General’s ethical duty to their clients to produce the documents.”
Easterlin adds, “Unfortunately, there is nothing provocative about a public official conducting himself properly.” I didn’t go to law school (clap! clap!) but I think that is meant as sarcasm.
Democrats smell blood. Deal’s opponent, state Sen. Jason Carter, immediately called for an independent investigation. Olens rejected the idea, saying two separate investigations — one state and one federal — are underway. He also says the law doesn’t give him authority to hire independent investigators.
In a letter to the editor in last week’s MDJ, Marietta attorney John Salter cites sections of Georgia law he claims would give Olens authority to conduct such investigations and says in part, “None of us are naive to the partisan uses of ‘ethics investigations’ in elections. But my concern is an issue that may linger long after this fall’s election cycle: the claim by Owens (sic) that, as attorney general, his office ‘lacks authority’ to investigate allegations of public corruption. Olens’s explanation might surprise former Attorney General Michael J. Bowers, who did exactly what Olens claims he cannot: investigate state officials for public corruption.”
Salter adds, “As attorney general, Olens is using public money to settle whistleblower lawsuits making allegations that, at minimum, embarrass the administration and, at worst, may involve more real abuse. Olens regards his ‘authority’ as robust enough to use public money to buy people’s silence but too puny to investigate the truth. That is a disgrace, whether you are a Republican or a Democrat.”
Speaking of partisan uses of ethics investigations in elections, it should be noted Salter is a partner in the Barnes Group law firm and is the son-in-law of former Gov. Roy Barnes, who has been busy raising money for Olens’ opponent, Democrat Greg Hecht, a Henry County attorney and former state legislator.
I had a conversation recently with a public official from a neighboring county who observed he had always admired the “collegial” atmosphere that exists in Cobb County between Democrats and Republicans. He said that kind of atmosphere doesn’t exist in his county. Evidently, it is going with the wind in Cobb, too.
Interestingly, some of Olens’ Republican colleagues in the Legislature aren’t happy with the attorney general’s office these days. One high-ranking member told me this week that in his opinion, the AG’s office “blew” the Kalberman case and then chose to settle out-of-court with three other plaintiffs, costing taxpayers $3 million. The legislator says there was plenty of evidence he feels was not properly presented in court and says the trial attorneys for the state did a “terrible job.”
Will all of this hurt Olens’ re-election chances this fall? I doubt it, but he can’t be a happy camper these days. Through most of his distinguished career, Sam Olens has managed to avoid high-profile political controversy. But we aren’t in Cobb County anymore, Toto. This is the Big Leagues. Here they play hardball.
You can reach Dick Yarbrough at firstname.lastname@example.org; at P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, Georgia 31139; online at dickyarbrough.com or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/dickyarb