ATLANTA - A jury awarded the former director of the State Ethics Commission $700,000 after she claimed the commission forced her out of her job because she opened an investigation into the 2010 gubernatorial campaign of Gov. Nathan Deal.
Stacey Kalberman sued the Ethics Commission, claiming it forced her out of her job by slashing her pay by $35,000 and eliminating her chief deputy's position.
After the verdict, Kalberman said she felt vindicated.
"I'm relieved, because the justice system allowed me to bring my claim," said Kalberman. "It allowed me to tell my story, so I didn't just have to walk away from something I thought was terribly wrong."
Judge Ural D. Glanville ruled that Kalberman's attorney, Kim Worth, could not call Deal as a witness in the case, but Worth never missed an opportunity to bring his name into the trial.
"They uncovered a lot of stuff about Nathan Deal," Worth told jurors in her closing remarks. "They were ready to move on it. Stacey Kalberman, on May 3 (2011) disclosed violations of Nathan Deal, and within a month, she was told of her salary reduction."
But Ethics Commission attorney Bryan Webb tried to convince jurors that when commissioners cut Kalberman's salary by $35,000, it was simply for budgetary reasons. He argued that, when Kalberman asked for a raise in the midst of a budget crisis, she acknowledged commissioners lost faith in her ability to do the job.
"She had the gall to say the sky is falling, we're going to run out of money," said Webb. "And then said, I want $5,000 for myself. Kalberman took some actions that actually made the commission start to question her abilities and question her judgment."
In a written statement, Gov. Deal's Office said:
"Today’s verdict centered around an internal dispute between former employees and former commissioners of the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, which is a body that operates independently of elected officials. There’s a reason no member of the governor’s staff was called to testify: because there’s no connection to this office.
"After the most exhaustive review of such a case in Georgia history, commissioners last year ruled that the charges levied against Deal for Governor lacked merit. Those decisions are rendered by the commissioners, not commission staff. As such, who the commission employed as staff had no relevance to the Deal for Governor case."
After the verdict, Kalberman hugged her husband and her attorney.
"I just knew that the right thing wasn't done," said Kalberman. "What happened to me was purposeful."
Sen. Jason Carter released a statement on the verdict:
"This whistle-blower trial opened a new window into the unethical culture of Gov. Deal’s administration,” Carter said. “Between this trial, the ongoing federal grand jury inquiry, and the new revelations that the governor used his official taxpayer-paid staff to advance his private business dealings, it is clear that this governor doesn’t think that the rules apply to him.
“We need leaders we can trust to put Georgia citizens ahead of their own personal gain, and we need an ethics commission that is free to do its job without fear of this sort of politically-motivated retaliation."