- Associated Press - Monday, January 27, 2014

ATLANTA (AP) - The staffing situation at the state ethics commission has worsened, as the lead assistant to the executive secretary has resigned and the staff attorney remains on administrative leave.

Confidential secretary Lisa Dentler submitted her resignation last week with her final day in the office set for Feb. 9, according to an email obtained Monday through an open records request. Executive secretary Holly LaBerge wrote in a Jan. 21 email to commissioners that the departure “leaves the agency in a dire situation as she has been doing the work of two positions.”

Calls seeking comment from LaBerge and Dentler were not returned.

The agency has been dealing in recent months with the fallout from two lawsuits filed by former commission employees alleging retaliation for work investigating ethics complaints against Gov. Nathan Deal. Those lawsuits, which have included depositions of current and former commission employees as well as current and former commissioners, are set for trial next month.

LaBerge, in her deposition, testified that six agency employees have either quit or been fired since she took over in September 2011. Dentler has been a key anchor in the office, working under both the previous executive director and now LaBerge.

“She has been the rock over there,” said William Perry, executive of the watchdog group Common Cause Georgia. “I think the agency is losing a lot of institutional knowledge with her resignation.”

Perry said the agency is already understaffed and struggling to meet its function. He said the agency has yet to return a phone call from last week.

“This is an agency in crisis,” Perry said. “This agency continues to be a huge problem and it doesn’t seem to be getting better. That’s why we have been calling for independent appointments and funding for years. The sad thing is that we might finally get what we want because the agency is in complete turmoil, which is something we wanted to avoid all along.”

In the lawsuits, allegations have been made that the governor’s office helped recruit LaBerge, a former lobbyist for the Georgia Public Defender’s Standards Council, and that she later claimed the governor “owes her” for taking care of the complaints into his campaign finance and disclosures during the 2010 campaign.

Deal has said he doesn’t know LaBerge and doesn’t owe her anything. He was cleared of major violations in the ethics probe and agreed to pay $3,350 in administrative fees to resolve violations of campaign finance and disclosure laws. LaBerge has denied any wrongdoing.

Staff attorney Elisabeth Murray-Obertein was placed on administrative leave Jan. 8 following an incident in which a Georgia State Patrol trooper was called to the commission’s office on a report of an intoxicated state employee. Murray-Obertein’s attorney Brian J. Sutherland has said she is addressing a medical condition while on leave and declined to comment further.

The ethics commission was scheduled to meet Tuesday to discuss personnel issues and receive an update on pending litigation. Murray-Obertein’s administrative leave has been extended once and is set to expire on Wednesday.

Murray-Obertein was among two current and three former commission employees who received federal grand jury subpoenas seeking agency documents in the Deal case. The scope of the federal inquiry isn’t known, and federal prosecutors have declined comment. Deal’s attorney has said the inquiry doesn’t involve the governor.

Commission Chairman Kevin Abernethy said Monday that Dentler was a “fine employee and a dedicated public servant.” In terms of the agency’s staffing situation, Abernethy said the commission would welcome additional funds to hire more staff.

“Our agency does work very hard and has a broad statutory mandate,” Abernethy said. “Additional professionals to help carry out that obligation day to day would be welcomed, no question about it.”


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

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