- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 2, 2014

ATLANTA (AP) - Former members of the state ethics commission testified Wednesday that their concern about the agency’s budget alone led them to slash the commission director’s salary and to eliminate another position.

Kent Alexander and Josh Belinfante testified in the trial over a lawsuit filed by former commission Executive Secretary Stacey Kalberman. She alleges commissioners cut her salary by about a third 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.

“From my perspective, it was all about budget,” Alexander said.

He and other commissioners had been extremely concerned about the state of the agency’s budget after a May 3, 2011, commission meeting, he said. They were all taken aback when Kalberman suggested raises for herself and other members of her staff in an executive session after that meeting.

Kalberman’s attorneys maintain the commissioners began moving to push their client out after that meeting because she had also 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 that her deputy’s position would be eliminated.

Holly LaBerge, who succeeded Kalberman as director of the commission and still holds that position, had testified Tuesday that she was contacted by someone in the governor’s office in mid-May 2011 asking if she’d be interested in the executive secretary job. LaBerge testified that she told the person she would be interested and was told Belinfante would contact her.

Belinfante said he reached out to LaBerge to see if she would be interested and available to take the executive secretary job, possibly on an interim basis, if Kalberman left abruptly.

“I knew that if you reduced someone’s salary that much, there was a chance they would seek a new opportunity,” he said.

Belinfante, who had previously worked in the governor’s office, knew LaBerge, who worked as legislative liaison at the Public Defender Standards Council. She had held several government jobs, was seeking a change and was attractive because she had experience with state budgets, he said.

Belinfante testified that he had a number of informal conversations with LaBerge before the executive secretary job was posted to determine her level of interest. He said he told her they were going to be making harsh budget decisions, including a significant cut to the executive secretary’s salary, and that he was concerned that might create a vacancy.

Alexander testified that he was surprised to learn that Belinfante and commission chairman Patrick Millsaps had been talking to LaBerge about the job before it was posted publicly.

“I do think it’s unusual we have resumes being set up before there’s any reason to,” Alexander said.

But Alexander also said that the budget was the sole reason behind the commissioners’ plan to cut Kalberman’s salary and to eliminate the position of her deputy, Sherilyn Streicker. He was surprised when, after she was told of the plan, Kalberman sent an email to all the commissioners alleging that the move was meant to halt the Deal investigation.

“That was really off the wall for me,” Alexander said.

Kalberman attorney Kim Worth presented communications and draft subpoenas that made it clear that Kalberman thought it was necessary to use subpoenas to get documents necessary in the Deal investigation. Both Belinfante and LaBerge testified Wednesday that they didn’t believe subpoenas were necessary and that they believed they could get the documents they needed from the governor’s outside lawyer without them.

Kalberman’s lawsuit is the first to go to trial of three whistleblower suits filed in the wake of 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.

Deal was later cleared of major violations in the ethics probe and agreed to pay $3,350 in administrative fees.



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