September 4, 2014
ATLANTA (AP) — A judge imposed fines of $10,000 each on the Georgia attorney general’s office and the head of the state ethics commission Wednesday, saying they had failed to turn over key documents in a lawsuit against the commission.
Fulton County Superior Court Judge Ural D. Glanville determined the attorney general and ethics commission director Holly LaBerge should have turned over emails and texts between LaBerge and top aides for Gov. Nathan Deal and a memo documenting the communications.
The ruling comes in a lawsuit by former commission director Stacey Kalberman, who claimed she faced retaliation for an investigation of ethics complaints against the governor.
A jury earlier this year sided with Kalberman, who was awarded $750,000 in damages plus $450,000 in back pay and attorney fees. After the verdict, the state chose to settle with three other former commission employees who also said they were retaliated against for $1.8 million.
In the order, Glanville noted the court was “extremely troubled” by LaBerge’s actions throughout the case.
He wrote that even though the fines would bring “more financial pain” to Georgia taxpayers, “the Court has no other recourse when faced with the conduct of the Department, and most appallingly, Defendant LaBerge, who has repeatedly proven herself to be dishonest and non-transparent.”
LaBerge referred questions to her attorney, A. Lee Parks, who said in a written statement that she would appeal the judge’s decision on the grounds she should not have been personally sanctioned and noted it was LaBerge who brought the memo to light.
“It is our hope the appellate court will correct the grave injustice done today by blaming the whistleblower that risked her job to disclose a major cover-up engaged in by the attorney general’s office for no other reason than to hide the truth and avoid liability in pending litigation,” Parks said.
The attorney general’s office hired attorney Ed Lindsey to oppose the request for sanctions. Lindsey had argued the state attorneys handling the Kalberman case were unaware of the emails and texts and had determined the memo didn’t qualify for discovery. In response to the judge’s decision, Lindsey said in a written statement the attorney general’s office disagreed with the ruling and would review its legal options.
“While we appreciate the judge recognizing the ethical dilemmas faced by the Department of Law when confronted with a ‘dishonest and nontransparent client’ in Ms. Laberge, the Department believes that the dedicated public servants in its office worked diligently and ethically in this matter to respond to all discovery requests put forth by the plaintiff and her attorney,” Lindsey said.
An attorney for Kalberman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In the memo, LaBerge claims she was pressured and her agency’s attempt to expand rule-making authority was threatened during conversations with Deal’s chief counsel and chief of staff shortly before the commission considered complaints involving the governor’s personal and campaign finance disclosures during the 2010 campaign. The commission ended up dismissing two of the five complaints, and Deal paid $3,350 in administrative fees to settle the rest.
Deal has denied any wrongdoing and said he was not involved in commission business. Word of the memo surfaced in July, three months after the jury sided with Kalberman as LaBerge herself claimed whistleblower status for speaking out about the case. In an interview with Fox 5, LaBerge denied she did anything to help the governor and pointed to the threats as proof she was not a puppet.