(And what we found trying to answer them)
The state ethics commission is a mess, its organization and reputation in shambles. It’s forked over $3 million to four fired employees who blamed a cover-up in an investigation of Governor Nathan Deal’s 2010 campaign, then fired its most recent director last month after a judge said she’d been “dishonest and nontransparent.”
Even now, on the eve of Deal’s re-election bid, questions about the ethics allegations from four years ago have only grown stronger. His opponent, Jason Carter, returns to them almost daily. “Imagine,” he said in the first debate between the candidates, “a world where the governor comes on the radio and he’s not talking about an ethics scandal.” Common Cause Georgia says a jury’s $1.1 million award to former ethics commission director Stacey Kalberman underscores the need to reopen the investigation; Sam Olens, the state attorney general, dismissed Democrats’ earlier call to revive the probe as politically motivated.
Technically speaking, all the complaints against Deal were resolved in 2012, when he paid $3,350 in administrative fees for filing defective campaign and personal finance disclosures.
But a review of the commission’s files shows the investigation leading to that settlement was never really completed. Ethics commission staffers abandoned inquiries into tens of thousands of dollars spent on air travel and credit card charges, and questioned no one but lawyers for the campaign accused of wrongdoing.
Deal, while denying misconduct, has sounded the need for reform, calling for more money for the commission and a restructuring of its leadership. Skeptics contend true reform must go farther by shielding the ethics commission from political pressure and giving it a dedicated source of funding.
Deal’s campaign spokesman, Brian Robinson, referred our specific inquiries to the campaign’s lawyer, but not before scoffing at a suggestion that the commission’s probe missed anything.
“We’ve answered all these questions over and over and over again,” Robinson told me in a recent telephone interview.
Not really. Among the questions that the commission never appeared to have answered:
- Did Deal’s business profit improperly by leasing a plane and helicopter to his 2010 campaign?
- Did his 2010 campaign pay a supporter more than market value for office space?
- Did the 2010 campaign pay personal expenses of its staffers?
- Did Deal’s 2010 campaign spending help to pay off a six-figure tax lien on the plane used by the campaign?
Neither Robinson nor campaign lawyer Randy Evans responded to a detailed set of follow-up questions on these topics.
I tried to answer these questions by examining investigative files and other public documents. What did I find? Rather than ensuring transparency in a state with a legacy of graft and corruption, the ethics commission settled the case, providing few answers and sometimes none at all.