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Gov. Deal denies tampering in ethics probe

ATLANTA -

One current and one former employee of the state ethics commission say politics undermined an earlier ethics investigation of Governor Nathan Deal. The two allege in depositions that the commission's executive director tried to help the governor out, but Deal says it didn't happen.

John Hair and Elisabeth Murray Obertein were eyewitness to the inner workings of the State Ethics commission.  He is a former employee. She is the current staff attorney. Both believe political interference from the Governor's Office derailed an ethics investigation of Deal.

"I thought it was very unhonest. I thought that it was inappropriate," Hair said.

Back in 2011, then-ethics commission Executive Director Stacey Kalberman and her top attorney, Sherry Striecker, were heading up an ethics investigation of Gov. Deal. But after they told Ethics Board commissioners that they planned to subpoena documents, the commission voted to slash the budget and eliminated Striecker's job.

Kalberman resigned and both later sued, claiming they were forced out because of their investigation. Holly LaBerge was appointed the new executive director after they left.

In depositions during the wrongful termination lawsuit, LaBerge admitted the governor's office contacted her about taking over the top job at the ethics commission while the very same ethics commission's was investigating the governor.

"She characterized her relationship with me, I know for a fact, countless times that she made the governor's legal problems go away, and that now he owes her," Hair said.

Hair and present staff attorney Elisabeth Murray Obertein both said in depositions during the lawsuits that LaBerge boasted of her close ties to the governor and met with governor's aides during the investigation.

Gov. Deal said those staff meetings were routine.

"Yes, my staff had conversations with staff at ethics, because in 2012 we were trying to get reforms to the ethics law in this state," Deal said.

In her deposition in the lawsuit, LaBerge denied having a close relationship with Deal.

In the end, the ethics complaints against Deal were either dismissed, or reduced to small penalties for technical difficulties.

Deal said ethics staff like LaBerge have no power to settle an ethics case. That decision is made by the ethics commission.  

"We have seen, I think over the course of years, that some people believe that they can use the ethics complaint process as a political tool," LaBerge said.

Obertein said, "What should happen, there should be a shake-up at the ethics commission. People should be outraged. Absolutely outraged."

LaBerge said can't comment on an ongoing lawsuit, but there will be more information that will surface as the case continues.

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