Ethics official says cutbacks related to Deal investigation
By Aaron Gould Sheinin and James Salzer
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
10:48 p.m. Thursday, June 16, 2011
The head of the state ethics commission said it was no coincidence that she is being pushed from her job while pursuing an investigation into Gov. Nathan Deal's campaign.
In an email obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Stacey Kalberman, the commission's executive secretary, linked the decision to eliminate her assistant's job and deeply cut her own salary to their requests for subpoenas against the governor's campaign. She also revealed in that email to Patrick Millsaps, chairman of the ethics commission, that the state attorney general's office reviewed their work and that the FBI offered to assist in the ethics investigation.
Millsaps said the staff budget cuts have nothing to do with the investigation into complaints filed against Deal's 2010 campaign for governor.
The complaints question how Deal paid for airfare for the campaign, whether he improperly used state campaign funds for legal bills related to a federal ethics investigation and whether he improperly accepted campaign contributions that exceed limits.
But on Tuesday, the same day The Atlanta Journal-Constitution first reported the looming staff shake-up, Kalberman said she was contacted by someone in the governor's office "to assist me in finding a job."
In an interview at her attorney's office, Kalberman would not reveal who called her or what job was offered. The person, she said, "let me know there are options. "
Stephanie Mayfield, a spokesman for the governor, said Kalberman "has been reached out to by our office just to see if she needs help. It was not about any specific job."
Mayfield referred questions about the commission's investigation to the governor's campaign attorney, who could not be reached for comment.
Kalberman said the dispute began when she and her deputy and chief investigator, Sherilyn Streicker, presented draft subpoenas to the commission on May 3. Needing only the chairman's signature to move forward with the investigation, Kalberman said instead she began to receive pointed questions about the agency's budget.
The conflict reached a head last week when Millsaps told her that her deputy's job was being eliminated and Kalberman's own salary was to be cut nearly 30 percent. Millsaps said Kalberman resigned in that meeting on June 9; Kalberman denies that and said she does not intend to leave her job. The commission will meet at 9 a.m. today to settle the matter.
As the dispute between Millsaps and Kalberman became public earlier this week, Kalberman raised the question of whether the chairman's move was related to the Deal investigation.
Millsaps said his motive was budgetary. A major concern, he said, was that Kalberman wanted to spend up to $20,000 remodeling the office and was including a raise in her proposed budget while at the same time saying the commission might not be able to meet new requirements the Legislature imposed this year.
Kalberman said the remodeling was to create training space and a place for the commission to meet. She said that in May she offered to withdraw that proposal.
Millsaps, who became Deal's first appointee to the commission when he was reappointed in February, said he would likely recuse himself from the Deal case anyway.
"We were given something on the Deal case," Millsaps said of the May 3 meeting. "I probably didn't look at it too much."
Millsaps questioned the timing of Kalberman's email.
"It took her a week to come up with that," he said. "I was expecting an accusation about politics. It's a complete fabrication."
Still, Millsaps said the commission will do its duty.
"We have all taken the oath that whoever is in front of us, we are going to take them on if they need to be taken on," he said. "But we've got to keep the lights on while we are doing it."
In the Wednesday email to Millsaps, Kalberman said she had presented budget documents at Millsaps' request, but he didn't want to see them.
"Your stated concern is that we do not have the budget for this investigation," Kalberman wrote. "However, the costs have already been paid. Staff time is built into the budget and, in my opinion, we have sufficient resources going forward."
What's more, she said, "the only impediment to continuing this investigation would be my and my deputy's dismissal."
In the interview Thursday, Kalberman refused to comment on that email, saying it was not intended for public consumption. She also would not comment on what the FBI is doing to assist the investigation and added that the attorney general often assists commission staff in their investigations.
Special Agent Stephen Emmett, a spokesman with the Atlanta office of the FBI, would not comment on whether the bureau had offered to assist the investigation.
But Kalberman said she asked Millsaps about the subpoenas twice between May 3 and May 20. He did not sign them and she described his attitude toward them as "tepid" and "reluctant."
Once, she said, "he admonished me" and said if the commission moved forward, "I want you personally to handle this."
But Millsaps said he doesn't remember that.
"The only thing I ever remember saying about Deal was that I was going to recuse myself because I was a Deal appointee, and that is why I didn't take any interest in the Deal case," Millsaps said. "I was focused on the budget."
Commissioner Kevin Abernethy said he saw draft versions of the Deal subpoenas when the commission met May 3, although he said they were not "presented formally."
Abernethy said commissioners decided not to take any formal action on the Deal case at the time.
"What we decided to do, in the interest of efficiency, is to wait for a formal and final report and not micromanage what the staff was doing," he said.
But that is contrary to how the process usually works, Kalberman said.
"The subpoenas are part of the investigation," she said. "We get the subpoenas to investigate the case."
Instead of signing the subpoenas, Kalberman said that on May 20, Millsaps called for an in-depth review of the commission's budget for the coming fiscal year, a concern that led to last week's meeting.
Kalberman met with Millsaps and Commissioner Hillary Stringfellow on June 9 in Kalberman's office. Millsaps told Kalberman that her deputy's job was being eliminated and her own pay was being cut from $120,000 to $85,000.
Kalberman became emotional and left the room at least once. After the second exit, Millsaps and Stringfellow left. The next day, Millsaps e-mailed Kalberman.
"To follow up on yesterday, we will of course accept your resignation and certainly understand your decision," Millsaps wrote.
An hour later, Kalberman responded, apologized for becoming emotional and said she never resigned.
"I was obviously upset yesterday because, as I explained, I was just informed that my mother was diagnosed with a recurrence of metastatic breast cancer and is very ill," Kalberman wrote. "Your news came at a very unfortunate time. However, I have not as yet made any decisions about my employment."
Kalberman disputed Millsaps' assertion that the commission might run out of money in the middle of the coming fiscal year.
Millsaps waited until Monday to write again. He told Kalberman, "You made your decision about your employment very clear last Thursday."
"You repeatedly stated that 'you would not work' for the lower salary, that we 'would have to find someone else,' and that you were resigning and [sic] 'spend more time with your children,' " he wrote.
Later Monday, Kalberman wrote back to Millsaps: She said she was "stunned by" his allegation that she had resigned and denied that she made those statements.
On Thursday, Kalberman said she would like to keep her job, but "at this point it seems untenable."
Others promised to pay attention to whom the commission hires to replace Kalberman.
William Perry, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, a government watchdog group, said, "The question is, are they going to get anyone who is going to take on these cases, or are they just going to get someone who will roll over?"
Staff writer Chris Joyner contributed to this article.
Edited by holymoses, 17 March 2012 - 12:12 AM.