NOTE: This post includes material published on this blog earlier. It is posted here as the electronic version of today’s AJC column.
The implications of an internal memo written last week by Stacey Kalberman, the state’s top ethics-enforcement official, are potentially explosive.
“I do not believe it to be a coincidence that your increased concern with the budget coincides with my staff’s preparation and delivery to you for your signature the subpoenas related to the ongoing [Gov.] Nathan Deal investigation,” Kalberman wrote to commission chairman Patrick Millsaps. “As you know, these subpoenas have been reviewed and approved for legal sufficiency by the attorney general’s office. Your stated concern is that we do not have the budget for this investigation. However, the costs have already been paid. Staff time is built into the budget, and in my opinion we have sufficient resources going forward. In addition, the FBI has offered at no cost its forensic accountant to assist us.”
According to Kalberman, “the only impediment to this investigation would be my and my deputy’s dismissal.” And of course, that impediment is now in place. Kalberman’s deputy and chief investigator has been dismissed. Kalberman herself, faced with the loss of her only investigator and forced to swallow a 30 percent pay cut, was effectively forced out as well.
In most states, the fact that the state’s top ethics professional and her deputy were being fired, allegedly to shortcircuit an investigation of the governor, would be enough to rock the halls of the Capitol. But in Georgia these days, such things are more or less taken in stride, which in itself is an appalling indictment.
It’s true, of course, that Kalberman might be wrong. People facing the loss of a job have been known to jump to false conclusions. There’s also no doubt that the commission’s budget problems are real. These are tough times for any agency, and the ethics commission has suffered worse than most. Georgia politicians have used this budget crisis as an excuse to defang their supposed watchdog and have left it capable of no more than a good gumming.
In other words, even if the Deal investigation was short-circuited for budget reasons, it would not be accidental. It would instead be a case of Georgia politicians getting exactly the outcome they sought. They do not want an active, capable ethics commission, and they clearly do not have one.
Take last week’s meeting of the ethics commission, formally known as the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission. It began more than 20 minutes late because the embattled Kalberman was in her office conferring privately with transparency commission member Kent Alexander, a former King and Spalding partner, former U.S. attorney and now general counsel at Emory University. Apparently, certain things had to be explained and arranged.
Once the public meeting finally began, the transparency commission voted immediately to go into executive session. All members of the media and public were escorted out.
An hour later, the transparency commission reconvened to make it official: Kalberman and her deputy, investigator Sherilyn Streicker, were both on the way out.
All members of the transparency commission lauded the excellent work done by Kalberman. A tight-faced Kalberman lauded the excellent work done by the transparency commission. Somewhere, faint strains of an off-key “Kumbaya” could be heard. Or maybe that part was just my imagination.
When the meeting ended, Kalberman retreated immediately into her office, closing the door behind her. Millsaps, who had participated by conference call, hung up. The three members of the transparency commission foolish enough to participate in person — Alexander, Josh Belinfante and Kevin Abernethy, fled while ducking questions about the status of the Deal investigation and subpoenas.
Transparency, Georgia style.