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June 14, 2014

State settles with 3 ex-ethics commission employees

ATLANTA — The state ethics commission has settled for more than $1.8 million with three former employees alleging retaliation related to an investigation of Gov. Nathan Deal, bringing an end to what could have been a protracted court battle in a major election year.

The ethics commission has been mired in staffing issues, lawsuits and allegations of outside influence for more than a year. Deal, who is seeking re-election, has repeatedly denied any involvement with commission business and sought to distance himself from the controversy.

Meanwhile, it remains unclear whether federal investigators remain interested in the ethics complaints against Deal, which involved his 2010 campaign finance reports and personal financial disclosures. Late last year, federal prosecutors issued subpoenas for commission documents related to the Deal complaints but officials with the U.S. attorney's office have continued to decline to comment.

Commission Chairman Kevin Abernethy said Friday the commission decided to settle with the three former employees, two of whom had filed lawsuits while a third was expected to do so. The decision follows a jury verdict in April awarding $700,000 plus attorneys' fees to the commission's former executive secretary, Stacey Kalberman, who had argued in court that her pay was slashed and her deputy's position eliminated as they were preparing subpoenas in the Deal case.

"We are pleased to put these matters behind us and look forward to proceeding in a positive direction with the work of the commission," Abernethy told The Associated Press.

Under the terms, the commission's former deputy, Sherry Streicker, will receive $1 million, former IT specialist John Hair will receive $410,000 and former staff attorney Elisabeth Murray-Obertein will receive $477,500, according to Lauren Kane with the Attorney General's Office, which represented the commission in the lawsuits.

The commission has denied any wrongdoing, and Deal has said he was not involved in any of the commission's decisions or actions. Deal's spokesman Brian Robinson said Friday's announcement underscores the governor's call for reforming the commission.

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