Georgia attorney general facing accusations in ethics case

by: Jodie Fleischer Updated:

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ATLANTA - Georgia's attorney general is facing strong accusations from the legal community for hiding a key document in a high-profile ethics case.
 
"You do get elected, but once you assume that oath, you are the top lawyer in the state. You are a lawyer, lawyer, lawyer, you are not a politician," said attorney Bob Wilson.
 
Many attorneys have been reluctant to criticize Sam Olens on the record, however, Wilson is publicly echoing sentiments Channel 2 Action News has heard repeatedly.
  
Wilson was not involved in the governor's ethics case, or the whistleblower lawsuits that followed. But he did review all of the documents involved in the discovery process.
 
Wilson says a bombshell memo written by Ethics director Holly LaBerge documenting interference by the governor's staff in his ethics case in 2012 should have been turned over by the attorney general.
 
"This attorney general has championed himself as one of open government, open records, transparency," said Wilson. "He should have produced this document."
 
Channel 2 Action News obtained the document through an open records request Monday.
 
Attorneys who represented four whistleblowers say they absolutely should have received the memo along with the rest of the evidence in their cases, but never knew it existed.
 
Those whistleblowers sued saying they lost their jobs due to politics in the ethics office, and Gov. Nathan Deal trying to avoid major fines for campaign violations.
 
“If you're asking me do I think that might have been a political decision by the attorney general himself? It certainly appears to be," Wilson told Channel 2 investigative reporter Jodie Fleischer. "I think he has hid a document, that's what it amounts to."
 
Wilson says Olens seems to have been protecting Governor Deal by keeping the memo secret. 
 
LaBerge claims the attorney general's office even told her not to talk about the memo when she testified under oath in her predecessor's whistleblower case earlier this year.
 
Stacey Kalberman says the governor's same staffers recruited LaBerge to replace her, and then go easy on the governor.
 
A jury awarded Kalberman more than $1 million, then the state quickly settled with three more whistleblowers, costing taxpayers a total of roughly $3 million, even without that memo.
 
"I thought the memo would not be responsive to any of the discovery documents," said attorney Ben Easterlin.
 
The attorney general asked Easterlin to review his decision not to turn over the memo in discovery after it became public this week.
 
Easterlin came to Olens' defense, saying the texts and calls from the governor's Chief of Staff Chris Riley and Chief Counsel Ryan Teague referenced in LaBerge's memo, refer to the hearing and settlement of Deal's ethics cases, not the investigation itself.
 
"Just because there's differences in opinion does not mean one side or the other is not interpreting it in good faith. There is room for good faith honest disagreement," added Easterlin.
 
He also reiterated what Olens said in his only statement. Because LaBerge didn't send her memo to anyone, it is not considered "correspondence" which fit the wording of the discovery request by Kalberman's attorney.
 
Wilson says the ethics complaints, their handling by the ethics commission, and Olens' actions during discovery should all be investigated.
 
"When you start playing hide the ball, and you stand behind technicalities and put yourself on a piece of thin ice, eventually it's going fall through on you," said Wilson.
 
Olens has declined Channel 2's repeated requests for an on-camera interview, citing attorney-client privilege. 
 
He's also refused to call in a special investigator to look into all of this, saying the FBI and state inspector general are already looking at it.
 
But Wilson says the FBI would only look at criminal violations, and the inspector general answers to the governor, so neither investigation is enough.
 
“Maybe we're being technical is what [Olens] said," recounted Wilson. "No, you're not being technical, you're wrong. But you're trying to use 'technical' as your defense and it won't work."
 
Attorneys for the four whistleblowers who recently settled cases with the state are now considering filing bar complaints and asking a judge for sanctions against the attorney general and others involved with the memo.



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