Thursday November 26th, 2015 6:10PM

Trial begins in Ga. ethics commission suit

By The Associated Press
ATLANTA (AP) - Allegations that the state ethics commission retaliated against top staffers in an effort to stifle an investigation of Gov. Nathan Deal's personal and campaign finance reports have been at the center of two lawsuits pending in Fulton County Superior Court.

Now one of those lawsuits heads to trial this week, and a jury will decide whether they believe the claims brought by Stacey Kalberman, the commission's former executive secretary, or side with state attorneys who argue she left after her salary was reduced by 30 percent for budgetary reasons in 2011 and that it was unrelated to the governor's ethics probe.

Although Deal is not named in the lawsuit, the governor and his staff are expected to figure prominently in the weeklong trial with potential witnesses including Deal's chief of staff, his personal attorney and his current and former executive counsel. Deal also received a subpoena, but the judge on Monday dismissed the governor from having to testify after state attorneys argued Deal had no direct knowledge of what happened at the ethics commission.

Even a brief hearing before Monday's jury selection centered largely on allegations Deal's office recruited Kalberman's replacement, Holly LaBerge. State attorneys sought unsuccessfully to exclude testimony regarding allegations that LaBerge claimed the governor ``owes her'' for taking care of the ethics complaints. Deal has said he doesn't know LaBerge and doesn't owe her anything.

Assistant Attorney General Bryan Webb argued the claims were not relevant to the commission's decision to reduce Kalberman's salary. Webb has argued in court filings the commission was reacting to budget concerns raised by Kalberman.

``They have not sued the governor,'' Webb said. ``He is not a defendant; the ethics commission is. The point of this trial is to determine what (commissioners) were thinking at the time.''

Kalberman's attorney, Kim Worth, countered testimony of LaBerge's actions could explain why her client's salary was cut as she and her deputy, Sherry Streicker, were preparing subpoenas in the governor's ethics probe. Streicker's position was eliminated by commissioners, and she has filed a separate lawsuit.

``(Kalberman) lost her job and so did Sherry Streicker because somebody was trying to shut down the Deal investigation,'' Worth said. ``The subpoenas were never issued. They never went out, and it all went away.''

Deal was later cleared of major violations in the ethics probe and agreed to pay $3,350 in administrative fees.

A series of sworn statements in the Kalberman and Streicker lawsuits have revealed that LaBerge, a former lobbyist for the Georgia Public Defender's Standards Council, was first contacted by the governor's office about the ethics commission job when Kalberman was still in the position.

Deal has said it's common for his office to recommend potential candidates for state positions. LaBerge has denied any wrongdoing.

Meanwhile, LaBerge, Kalberman and Streicker have all received federal grand jury subpoenas seeking commission documents in the Deal ethics probe. At least two other former commission employees also have received federal subpoenas. The scope of the federal inquiry isn't known, and federal prosecutors have declined comment. Deal's attorney has said the inquiry doesn't involve the governor.

Other potential witnesses at this week's trial include LaBerge, several former and current ethics commissioners, a former federal prosecutor who is now a state judge and four former ethics commission employees. Opening statements were likely to happen Tuesday, with the trial estimated to last between three and seven days.
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