Judge weighs finger-pointing in ethics flap

ATLANTA -- A judge will decide by next week whether to sanction the Georgia Attorney General's office for failing to produce a key document in a case tied to Gov. Nathan Deal's 2010 campaign, and two of his current top aides.

At issue is a memo, written by the director of the state ethics commission, documenting a phone call initiated by executive counsel to Gov. Nathan Deal, Ryan Teague.

Ethics Commission director Holly LaBerge wrote, in a memo to herself, that the aide wanted an ethics case against Deal to go away. The memo followed a July 2012 phone call from Teague, and text messages from Deal's chief of staff Chris Riley. LaBerge documented them afterward and "locked (them) in a drawer," she said.

"What I was threatened was that if I didn't make the Nathan Deal cases go away, this agency's ability to have rule making authority would be in jeopardy," LaBerge testified Monday. The absence of such authority had hamstrung the ethics commission from effectively interpreting and applying state law to ethics complaints. The legislature, with Gov. Deal's support, gave the commission such authority in 2013.

LaBerge's predecessor, Stacy Kalberman, pursued the case against the governor's campaign and lost her job in the process. When Kalberman sued the state, her attorney asked for the Deal ethics file -- but never saw the memo detailing the allegedly threatening phone call made by the governor's aide.

Deal's office has argued that the conversation was rooted in frustration with the fact that the ethics cases against Deal had dragged out for more than two years. Critics say the elongated investigation was partly because of the change-of-leadership from Kalberman to LaBerge, engineered by the governor's office.

Kalberman wants to sanction the state for not producing the memo in the weeks leading up to her civil suit. Despite its absence, Kalberman won a judgment against the state in a jury trial earlier this year. Kalberman's attorney, Kim Worth, told the court Kalberman is pursuing the sanction out of respect for the rules of the court.

Assistant Attorney General Bryan Webb says he made the call to keep the memo out of a pile of documents requested by Kalberman. "The document was viewed as non-responsive" to the discovery request made by Kalberman's legal team, Webb said during testimony Monday.

Fulton Co. Superior Court judge Ural Glanville seemed incredulous that the state withheld the memo. Glanville presided over Kalberman's trial, and peppered witnesses with questions during Monday's hearing. "Why isn't it relevant?" Glanville asked Webb.

"I'm not arguing with you that it's not relevant. I'm arguing that it's not responsive" to the request, Webb said.

State Rep. Ed Lindsey, who represented the attorney general's office in the hearing, said afterward that such distinctions are routine in legal proceedings.

During testimony, LaBerge contended that Webb told her during a hallway conversation prior to her second day of testimony in the Kalberman trial that she was not to bring up the memo. A few minutes later, Webb denied the allegation on the witness stand.

Glanville said he would issue a ruling next week.


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