Ethics whistleblower asks to sanction public officials over hiding evidence

by: Jodie Fleischer Updated:

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ATLANTA —

An ethics whistleblower who won a $1.1 million verdict is now asking the judge to sanction several public officials for hiding evidence in her case.
 
Those officials include the state ethics director, the ethics commission and the Attorney General's Office.   

With the exception of State Ethics director Holly LaBerge, the new motion filed late Friday does not name names, but it does make some serious allegations against those public officials.
 
Attorney Kim Worth wrote to Fulton County Judge Ural Glanville, accusing the officials of “flagrant misconduct, bad faith litigation and discovery abuses.”
 
She characterizes their behavior as “a total disregard for the judicial process that must be addressed” by the court.
 
Friday's motion is the latest in a series of bombshells kicked off by a smoking-gun memo which Channel 2 Action News obtained through an open records request last month.
 
The memo, drafted by LaBerge, alleges Gov. Nathan Deal's top staffers tried to interfere with and settle his ethics case behind the scenes back in July 2012.
 
In the memo, LaBerge documented a call and texts she received from Deal's chief of staff Chris Riley and chief counsel Ryan Teague, which she characterized as threatening.
 
Those ethics cases stemmed from alleged campaign violations when Deal ran for governor in 2010.
 
LaBerge had been recruited by the Riley and Teague for the job. She replaced Stacey Kalberman, who was forced out of the position while aggressively pursuing the cases against Deal.
 
Kalberman sued as a whistleblower and a Fulton County jury sided with her earlier this year. But at the time, Kalberman had no idea the LaBerge memo even existed, because the Attorney General's Office chose not to share it with Kalberman's attorney during the discovery process.
 
LaBerge has since made clear that she provided the memo to the Attorney General's Office with the rest of her discovery documents, while they were representing her in the case.
 
Kalberman and her attorney believe their case would have been even stronger with the memo.
 
The same would be true for former deputy ethics director Sherry Streicker, staff attorney Elisabeth Murray-Obertein, and computer specialist John Hair. The total cost to taxpayers for all of their settlements was roughly $3 million.
 
Their attorneys may also file Georgia Bar complaints against the officials who withheld the document, and did not seek out or provide the actual texts they memorialized.
 
The new motion seeks sanctions in the amount that the court determines is appropriate “to punish and deter such conduct, and to send a message to the legal community that fraud in the discovery process is not an acceptable litigation tactic.”
 
It asks for an evidentiary hearing to determine the “scope and severity of the misconduct.”

LaBerge's attorney said he had not seen the filing and thus could not comment at this time.

The Attorney General's Office sent a statement saying:

"We welcome the opportunity to set the record straight in our formal response to this motion.  Throughout our dealings with the plaintiff’s counsel in this case, our attorneys acted professionally and appropriately in turning over every responsive document that our client provided to them.   

"It needs to be understood that Ms. Murray-Obertein testified at her deposition regarding the communications between Ms. Laberge and the Governor’s staff that are at issue in this motion.  That alone demonstrates that the plaintiff was already aware of the underlying allegations contained in the memorandum. 

"The primary focus of this motion is the fact that work-related emails from Ms. LaBerge’s personal Gmail account were not turned over to the plaintiff in response to discovery requests, or in response to open records requests served directly on Ms. LaBerge and the Ethics Commission.   These documents were never in the possession of our office.  Indeed, our attorneys did not know they existed.  Only Ms. LaBerge can provide an explanation regarding the newly-revealed emails.  

"Our office played no role in the decision not to include the Memorandum of Record drafted by Ms. LaBerge in the agency’s investigative file.  Those internal decisions are made by agencies and their staff members.   Our attorneys turned over everything that was represented as being the agency’s investigative file. 

"Our role with respect to the Memorandum was limited to the determination that it was not responsive to the specific discovery request propounded by the plaintiff relating to correspondence  because it clearly did not constitute “correspondence.”  This determination was made in good faith and in compliance with our duties to our client under the Georgia Bar’s Canon of Ethics. 

"We are confident that the court will confirm that this office and our attorneys at all times acted appropriately and within the bounds of our professional and ethical responsibilities."