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Sunday May 24th, 2015 7:22AM

Lawyer: Ethics commissioner wanted case dropped

By The Associated Press
ATLANTA - The chairman of Georgia's ethics commission pressured the commission's attorney to settle complaints against Gov. Nathan Deal, the attorney said in an affidavit.

Attorney Elisabeth Murray-Obertein said in the affidavit filed Friday that Chairman Kevin Abernethy called her several times ahead of a July 23, 2012, meeting to discuss the cases against Deal, who was accused of misusing campaign funds during the 2010 election. Abernethy denies those accusations.

"Commissioner Abernethy attempted in each phone conversation to pressure me into settling the complaint," Murray-Obertein said in the affidavit obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "In fact, Commissioner Abernethy informed me that the commissioners would vote to dismiss the complaints (and that I should settle the complaints because there was no point in having hearings)."

Murray-Obertein made the accusation in an affidavit filed in a lawsuit brought by the commission's former deputy director, Sherilyn Streicker.

Abernethy said there is no truth in the accusations made by Murray-Obertein.
"I deny everything that is being said," Abernethy told the newspaper. "I resent it. It's false."

He noted that Murray-Obertein agreed with a commission decision to dismiss a complaint focused on how Deal's campaign paid for airfare on a plane his company partly owned. Murray-Obertein called the commission's investigation "very thorough," according to a video recording of the meeting.

"I actually do not object to the motion to dismiss this particular complaint," she said.

However, Murray-Obertein objected at that meeting to dismissing a separate complaint focusing on Deal's use of state campaign funds to pay for his defense in a congressional probe.

Deal was cleared of major charges and paid $3,350 in administrative fees for "technical defects" to his campaign reports. Murray-Obertein had recommended $70,000 in fines.

The commission's former executive director, Stacey Kalberman, and her deputy, Streicker, filed lawsuits last year after the ethics commission decided to slash Kalberman's salary by about 30 percent and eliminate Streicker's position. At the time, Kalberman and Streicker were seeking approval from commissioners to issue subpoenas in the Deal investigation. Kalberman ultimately resigned.

Among those called to provide depositions in the two pending lawsuits are current commission Executive Secretary Holly LaBerge. LaBerge said in sworn statements that she received a phone call from the governor's office asking whether she was interested in the job before the job was open. The commission is meant to be an independent watchdog agency overseeing campaign finance and lobbying and is charged with hiring its own chief.

Murray-Obertein said in earlier sworn statements that LaBerge has on more than one occasion said the governor "owes her" for taking care of his ethics complaints. Deal has told reporters that he doesn't know LaBerge and that he doesn't owe her anything.
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