- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 8, 2014

ATLANTA (AP) - The state ethics commission and all its staffing issues, lawsuits and allegations of outside influence have quickly become a key issue in this year’s governor’s race, with Gov. Nathan Deal and Democratic rival Jason Carter sparring Tuesday over who’s to blame for the mess and how to fix it.

Deal, a Republican seeking re-election, proposed an overhaul of the commission this week that would expand the number of commissioners from five to 12 and implement procedures he says would remove any appearance of a conflict of interest. The plan was announced just a few days after a civil jury found in favor of a former commission employee who claimed retaliation for investigating the governor’s 2010 campaign reports.

Deal’s timing prompted Carter, a state senator and grandson of former President Jimmy Carter, to criticize Deal for failing to support an overhaul until now. Carter also called for the commission to reopen its investigation of Deal, who was cleared of major violations and paid $3,350 in administrative fees for technical issues with his personal and campaign finance reports.

“A jury has determined that the ethics commission investigator was fired for doing her job and that she was fired because she was investigating the governor,” Carter told reporters Tuesday. “That means we still don’t have a credible resolution to that investigation. Whatever it was she was investigating was important enough for the governor’s supporters to fire her.”

Deal, in an interview, defended his proposal as being in the works before the verdict was announced and argued substantial changes were needed to reduce a severe backlog in ethics complaints and a lack of new rules and regulations. He said expanding the commission and changing the appointment process would help with perceptions, and also acknowledged the commission needed more funding.

He also fired back at critics, saying the issue had become a “political football” in his re-election bid.

“Nobody has ever been asked to produce as much material as I was, and I did so freely,” Deal said. “And in spite of all of that, nobody could find anything that amounted to a violation of the ethics rules or of the campaign finance rules. … And the reason is because I did nothing wrong.”

Under his proposal, each branch of government would appoint four members to the commission and those commissioners would not be able to consider a case involving a person from their branch of government. Carter’s proposal would have taken appointment power from the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the House and moved it to the judiciary branch.

“The biggest problem is that we have the governor and his supporters running the ethics commission,” Carter said. “The governor had a chance to lead on this issue and he failed to do it. His supporters rejected my proposal for an independent ethics commission repeatedly, and he now has had this election year epiphany that he needs to deal with this only because he got his hand caught in the cookie jar.”

Deal’s campaign spokeswoman Jen Talaber said Deal’s plan built on ethics reforms passed by lawmakers last year and a lobbyist gift ban for executive branch employees that he ordered upon taking office.

“While Carter’s proposal simply shifts the conflict of interest from one branch of government to another, the governor’s reforms solve the problem,” Talaber said.

Stacey Kalberman, the former head of the ethics commission, was awarded $700,000, back pay and attorney’s fees by a jury Friday in her whistleblower suit against the commission. Kalberman claimed commissioners cut her salary and eliminated her deputy after the two sought subpoenas in the Deal investigation.

Deal’s Republican rivals have also sought to gain ground on the ethics issue ahead of the May 20 primary.

“Voters need to be keenly aware, if (Deal) is re-elected in the primary, he is a substantial liability in the November election because there are so many ethical issues there,” said state schools Superintendent John Barge.

“It is just laughable that Nathan Deal would attempt to put his name next to the word ‘ethics,’” said Michael Mule, campaign spokesman for former Dalton Mayor David Pennington.

Separately, Carter’s campaign finance report was not initially available on the ethics commission’s website Tuesday. His campaign blamed a technical glitch, and it was available later in the day. Candidates were required to file their March 31 reports with the commission by midnight Monday or face a late fee.

It was not the first glitch cited by a campaign in this year’s governor’s race. Pennington’s campaign also cited technical problems for missing a deadline for his personal financial disclosure.


Follow Christina Almeida Cassidy on Twitter: https://twitter.com/AP_Christina .

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