- Associated Press - Thursday, April 3, 2014

ATLANTA (AP) - The former director of the Georgia state ethics commission testified Thursday that she had been maligned and unfairly targeted, and yet she would take her job back even “after everything.”

Stacey Kalberman has alleged in a lawsuit that commissioners retaliated against her by cutting her salary and eliminating her deputy’s job after she presented them with subpoenas as part of the agency’s investigation into Gov. Nathan Deal’s 2010 campaign reports and financial disclosures.

Several commissioners have testified during a trial this week that they took those personnel steps out of concern for the agency’s budget.

Kalberman testified that she loved her job, got along well with the commissioners and felt like she was making a difference through her work at the commission.

“Absolutely, I would take it back, in a heartbeat,” she said when her lawyer, Kim Worth, asked about her old job.

Kalberman said then-commission Chairman Patrick Millsaps became agitated when she told him that federal authorities had expressed interest in the investigation. At a commission meeting on May 3, 2011, she and then-deputy director Sherilyn Streicker presented draft subpoenas to the commissioners.

Within weeks, Kalberman was getting emails from Millsaps saying he was concerned about the budget. During a meeting on June 9, 2011, Millsaps and another commissioner told Kalberman they planned to cut her salary by about a third and to eliminate Streicker’s job.

Kalberman, who said she was emotionally fragile because her mother was gravely ill, got upset and began to cry during that meeting. Millsaps testified earlier this week that she was angry and unprofessional.

After a series of exchanges with commissioners and after information about upheaval at the agency had been leaked to the media, Kalberman emailed commissioners saying she felt the personnel changes were meant to hinder the Deal investigation. Soon after, she agreed to resign because the situation had become “untenable.”

Holly LaBerge, who succeeded Kalberman and still holds the executive director position today, testified earlier this week that she had been contacted in mid-May by someone in the governor’s office asking if she would be interested in the job. She said was contacted by commissioners about the job in early June, before it was posted and before Kalberman had been told her salary would be cut.

LaBerge, who was not a lawyer like Kalberman and Streicker, took over in September 2011 and quickly determined she would need a staff attorney to handle investigations. The job was posted and Streicker applied for it but wasn’t given an interview, she testified Thursday.

“I don’t think it’s a good policy to hire former employees,” LaBerge testified Wednesday when asked why she wouldn’t hire Streicker who was clearly familiar with the job’s responsibilities. When asked to elaborate, LaBerge repeated that she didn’t think it was good policy.

Elisabeth Murray-Obertein was ultimately hired as the staff attorney and worked at the commission until January of this year. She said LaBerge told her she would have quit before hiring Streicker.

LaBerge said the commissioners hadn’t been happy about Kalberman and Streicker’s investigation into the Deal matter, that they had gone “off the reservation” and were digging too deeply into areas the commissioners didn’t want them to investigate, Murray-Obertein testified.

Murray-Obertein testified that she was under pressure to get these cases investigated and finished in the summer of 2012. Even though she was the one doing the investigation, LaBerge controlled it, Murray-Obertein testified. Murray-Obertein recommended tens of thousands of dollars in penalties the Deal case, but the final amount the commission ended up approving was $3,350 in administrative fees.

Murray-Obertein said she asked LaBerge in December 2012 about the possibility of a raise they had previously discussed. She was told commissioners wanted to give her and LaBerge raises but they had to wait because it would weaken their argument that they had fired Kalberman and Streicker for budgetary reasons, she said.

Several months later LaBerge said there was a salary freeze in place for state employees, but said she went to the governor and secured raises for Murray-Obertein and herself, Murray-Obertein testified. Human resources records show LaBerge got a raise in June 2013, and Murray-Obertein got a raise the following month.

A spokesman for the governor said the commission controls the salaries of its employees, not the governor.

“The governor has said numerous times that he has never met with? Holly LaBerge, nor has she ever discussed her salary with anyone in the governor’s office,” spokesman Brian Robinson said in an email Thursday.

Kalberman’s lawsuit is the first to go to trial of three whistleblower suits filed after the 2011 shake-up at the ethics commission. Streicker has also filed a suit alleging retaliation. And former IT specialist John Hair filed a suit saying LaBerge ordered him to alter, hide and destroy documents related to the Deal investigation.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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