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Saturday May 23rd, 2015 3:19AM

Deal proposes overhaul of Ga. ethics commission

By The Associated Press
ATLANTA (AP) Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal proposed an overhaul of the state ethics commission on Monday after a jury recently sided with an ex-commission employee who claimed retaliation for investigating Deal's 2010 campaign.

Deal said he'd make a proposal during the 2015 legislative session that would expand the commission and allow each branch of government to appoint four members, the governor's spokesman Brian Robinson said. The proposal is meant to address conflict of interest concerns, Deal said in a statement.

The current five-person commission would grow to 12 under the proposal, and would bar public officials' campaigns from being investigated by commissioners appointed by that candidate's branch of government. Lawmakers would have to approve any changes.

The commission's former director, Stacey Kalberman, was awarded $700,000, back pay and attorney's fees by a jury Friday in her whistleblower suit against the commission and its current director.

Kalberman claimed that commissioners cut her salary and eliminated her deputy's post after the two sought approval to issue subpoenas as part of the agency's investigation into Deal's 2010 campaign reports and financial disclosures.

Allegations later arose that Kalberman's replacement, Holly LaBerge, was recruited by the governor's office and that she claimed Deal owed her for making ethics complaints against him disappear. Deal has said he doesn't know LaBerge and doesn't owe her anything. LaBerge has also denied any wrongdoing.

The state argued that serious budget concerns led to the personnel decisions. Deal who is seeking re-election was cleared of major ethics violations and agreed to pay $3,350 in administrative fees.

Deal said the group's shortcomings existed before he took office, and that the commission has been plagued by confusion, dysfunction and inefficiency.

``Even a strong team with good intent falls short when the system itself is broken, and I do think the system is broken here,'' Deal said. ``With stronger guidelines and a commission that avoids the appearance of conflicts-of-interest, I believe we can get the system functioning efficiently and effectively. That's the first step in gaining public trust in the integrity of our political system.''

The campaign of Democrat Jason Carter, a state senator running for governor, pounced on the proposal Monday afternoon, saying it was a ploy by the governor to cover himself during an election year political crisis.

``It's hard to take these proposals seriously when one of Governor Deal's ethical lapses just cost the state more than $700,000 and Georgia taxpayers are still on the hook for other pending investigations,'' Carter campaign spokesman Bryan Thomas said in an emailed statement.

Carter is planning a press conference Tuesday morning on the steps of the state Capitol to demand that Georgia creates an ``independent and protected'' ethics commission.

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