- Associated Press - Friday, April 4, 2014

ATLANTA (AP) - Jurors awarded the former director of Georgia’s ethics commission $700,000 on Friday, ruling in her favor in a lawsuit in which she said her salary was cut and a deputy removed for investigating complaints against Gov. Nathan Deal.

The jury ruled in favor of Stacey Kalberman after more than two hours of deliberation, also deciding she would receive attorney’s fees and back pay.

“I’m relieved. I’ve honestly and truly believed what happened to me was wrong,” Kalberman said after the verdict. “I’m very thankful that our justice system permits this.”

Kalberman claimed in her suit against the commission and its current director that commissioners had slashed her salary and eliminated her deputy’s position as they sought approval to issue subpoenas as part of the agency’s investigation into Deal’s 2010 campaign reports and financial disclosures.

The state argued that the personnel actions were motivated by budget concerns.

The Republican governor was later cleared of major violations in the ethics probe and agreed to pay $3,350 in administrative fees. His political opponents seized on Friday’s verdict to raise questions about Deal as he runs for re-election this year.

Deal’s spokesman Brian Robinson said the ethics commission operates independently of elected officials and that the lawsuit involved “an internal dispute between former employees and former commissioners.”

Separately, the attorney general’s office declined to comment, citing other pending lawsuits filed by Kalberman’s former deputy, Sherilyn Streicker, and a former IT specialist for the commission.

Kalberman’s attorneys argued throughout the trial that the commissioners began moving to push their client out after a May 3, 2011, commission meeting because she had presented them with draft subpoenas in the Deal investigation. Kalberman was told during a meeting just over a month later that her salary would be cut by about a third and her deputy’s position eliminated.

Former commissioners who testified at the trial said they were concerned about the state of the agency’s budget after the May meeting and were taken aback when she asked for a raise for herself and some members of her staff in the executive session following the meeting.

Holly LaBerge, who succeeded Kalberman as director of the commission and still holds that position, testified during the trial that she was contacted by someone in the governor’s office in mid-May 2011 asking if she’d be interested in the commission director job and was later contacted by commissioners. All of that happened before Kalberman had been told about her salary cut and before the job was publicly posted.

After the verdict, members of the jury met Kalberman in the courthouse hallway and hugged her. “That was the best part of the whole proceeding. They all came out and hugged me,” Kalberman said.

Jury forewoman Allison Pecquet said the jury was completely unanimous in their thinking.

“It was Millsaps, when he told her not to say anything about the Deal investigation,” Pecquet said.

Kalberman had testified that when she told then-commission chairman Patrick Millsaps the details of the investigation and that federal authorities had been interested, he became agitated and told her not to tell anyone about it.

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