- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 1, 2014

ATLANTA (AP) - Jurors considering a lawsuit filed by the former director of the state ethics commission heard conflicting arguments Tuesday about the events that ultimately led to her departure from the agency.

The lawsuit filed by former commission executive secretary Stacey Kalberman alleges commissioners cut her salary and eliminated her deputy’s position as she sought approval in May 2011 to issue subpoenas as part of the agency’s investigation into Gov. Nathan Deal’s 2010 campaign reports and financial disclosures.

Kim Worth, an attorney for Kalberman, warned the jury that it may not be clear at the end of the trial “who pulled the strings” to get rid of Kalberman, but she led them through a string of arguments that pointed to actions by a number of people connected to the governor.

“We may not know who the puppet master was,” Worth said. “What we know is that it happened. What we know is the reason why it happened.”

Assistant Attorney General Bryan Webb told jurors in his opening statement that Kalberman had failed to propose solutions to budget woes facing the ethics commission and behaved unprofessionally during a meeting with two commissioners.

“There is no puppet master in this case,” Webb said, later adding that what happened to Kalberman was because of her own actions, not because of her investigation into the Deal campaign.

After Kalberman presented draft subpoenas to the commissioners at a May 3, 2011 meeting, Patrick Millsaps, who was commission chairman at the time, sent her an email “out of the blue” expressing concern about the budget, Worth said.

Webb countered that the commissioners became concerned after that meeting because Kalberman didn’t have good answers to their questions about the budget woes facing the agency and had asked for a raise for herself and some of her staffers.

On June 9, 2011, Kalberman met with Millsaps and another commissioner. During that meeting, Millsaps said her salary would be cut by about a third and her deputy’s position would be eliminated.

Webb said Kalberman “went into a tizzy,” and said she couldn’t work for that amount and left the room twice. Worth said Kalberman was emotionally fragile because her mother was gravely ill and left the room twice to compose herself after she started crying.

Worth told jurors they would meet a woman named Holly LaBerge, who succeeded Kalberman as executive secretary of the ethics commission. LaBerge got a call from someone in the governor’s office in mid-May 2011 asking her if she was interested in Kalberman’s job and interviewed for the job June 3, before Kalberman had been told about her salary cut and before the job had been publicly posted, Worth said.

Millsaps, a defense witness who would normally have testified in the second part of the trial when the defense presents its case, testified Tuesday because of a schedule conflict that would have kept him from being in Atlanta later in the week.

He testified that he started to have concerns about Kalberman when she requested raises amid tight budget conditions and when she became “angry and disrespectful” during the June meeting with him and another commissioner.

Worth asked Millsaps if it would be improper for someone from the governor’s office to have called LaBerge to talk to her about taking Kalberman’s office.

“It doesn’t pass the smell test. If something smells bad it probably is,” Millsaps said.

When Worth confronted him with emails that seemed to suggest that Millsaps had spoken to LaBerge while Kalberman was still serving as executive secretary, Millsaps said they needed a backup plan if Kalberman wouldn’t work for less.

Worth called LaBerge as her final witness Tuesday. LaBerge testified that she had held several government jobs, including as legislative liaison for the Public Defender Standards Council, but that she was not a lawyer and had no prior experience working with ethics, campaign finance or investigations.

She testified that she got a call in the middle of May 2011 from someone in the governor’s office asking her if she was interested in the ethics commission executive secretary job. She said she could not remember who it was who called her or what position he held in the governor’s office.

Under questioning by Worth, LaBerge testified that she determined shortly after starting as executive secretary in September 2011 that the agency’s budget was in good shape. Within the first few months, she hired a receptionist, a staff attorney and an outside lawyer to help with agency work.

LaBerge was still on the stand when the trial wrapped up for the day, and she is expected to take the stand again Wednesday morning.

Kalberman’s lawsuit is the first of three whistleblower suits filed in the wake of the 2011 shake-up at the ethics commission to go to trial. Her deputy at the commission, Sherilyn 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.

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