Will an Ethics Scandal—and Jimmy Carter's Grandson—Bring Georgia's GOP Governor Down?
A brewing controversy over whether Gov. Nathan Deal's aides tried to shut down an investigation could imperil his reelection prospects.
Could a Carter from Georgia once again win because of a scandal-plagued Republican? Democrat Jason Carter—grandson of former President Jimmy Carter—is challenging first-term Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal this fall, and the incumbent Republican is facing an ethics controversy that could imperil his reelection chances.
Deal has been embroiled for years in a low-grade scandal regarding allegations that his staff smothered a state ethics investigation of his campaign finances. But the controversy has recently heated up. This spring, a former head of the state's ethics commission won a lawsuit in which she claimed that she was improperly pushed out of her job for digging into Deal's campaign. Her replacement—fearing that she might also be jettisoned from the commission—has now come forward and alleged that the governor's aides tried to interfere with the ethics commission.
Last week, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that in July 2012 Holly LaBerge, the current head of the state's ethics commission, wrote a memo outlining political intimidation by Deal's staff. In the memo, she noted that the governor's top lawyer, Ryan Teague threatened to strip her agency of its rulemaking authority in order to deep-six the investigation of Deal's 2010 gubernatorial campaign. LaBerge's memo also said that Deal's chief of staff, Chris Riley, pressured her to close the matter, which the commission eventually did. "I was mad that the governor's legal counsel thought he could call me up and threaten me and threaten my agency," LaBerge told the local Fox station.
The FBI and the state inspector general have been reviewing the ethics commission's activities, and LaBerge's attorney said the ethics chief would want whistleblower protections for her cooperation. If she is granted protection, she might be in the position to disclose more about this episode, and Deal could face more damaging stories.
Deal's ethics commission troubles date back to 2011. Then LaBerge's predecessor, Stacey Kalberman, and Kalberman's deputy, Sherilyn Streicker, began examining Deal's 2010 campaign spending. They suspected that Deal, who had served nine terms in Congress before running for governor, might have improperly directed campaign funds to businesses to which he had ties. Kalberman and Streicker alerted the ethics panel's five commissioners of their intention to issue subpoenas for information. The commissioners responded by slashing Kalberman's salary by $35,000, effectively forcing her out, and eliminating Streicker's job.*