By Tom Baxter
The verdict which came down Friday in the Stacey Kalberman trial was bad news for Gov. Nathan Deal. Worse still was the enthusiasm with which that verdict was rendered.
You just don’t see that many discharged juries flocking around the successful plaintiff to embrace and congratulate her very often at the end of a civil suit. That was the scene last week after Kalberman, the former state Ethics Commission director, was awarded $700,000 in damages, plus court costs and back pay to kick the state’s tab up over a million, for being fired in retaliation for her tough investigation of Deal’s 2010 campaign finances.
It took only 2 1/2 hours for the jury to come back with its verdict, but it didn’t take that long for them to decide the case, one juror said. They were just figuring out how high the damages should be. They laughed off the state’s argument that Kalberman was let go as a cost-cutting measure, and wondered why the state even contested her case. For them, the most damaging testimony came from the governor’s own allies. This isn’t the kind of thing the state’s legal team wants to hear, with two similar whistleblower cases teed up after this one.
In its response, Deal’s office held up Superior Court Judge Ural Glanville’s ruling that Deal didn’t have to testify in this trial as proof that it was an “internal dispute” involving the commission and its staff, with no relevance or connection at all to the governor whom the commission and its staff were at odds over.
This might make legal sense, but from a political perspective you have to wonder if Deal might have been better off accepting a subpoena and giving a forceful defense of himself on the stand. The problem isn’t going to go away. At some point Deal has to address the issue more directly than he has so far, unless he decides that he can avoid it and win anyway.
Deal won the governor’s office in 2010 in the face of a furious attack on his personal ethics by the Roy Barnes campaign, so the strong temptation may be to stand pat. But this is a different year and a different set of election dynamics. They say the cover-up can be worse than the crime, and what this series of trials amounts to is a long parade of witnesses attesting to a cover-up.
To gauge the real impact of Deal’s continuing ethics problems on the election, it would be good to know what’s going on in the heads of the Sherry Streickers of our state. Not Streicker personally: we have to assume that as the plaintiff in the next whistleblower case, the commission’s former deputy director may not be disposed to vote for the incumbent.
However, when asked on the stand last week if her investigation of Deal’s campaign finances was politically motivated, her answer was “Hell, no,” according to the Fulton Daily Report.
“I’m a Republican, always have been,” she said.
If enough people of like mind, staunch Republicans or Republican-leaning independents, are affected enough by this case to vote against Deal in the primary next month, or pass over his name in November, he has a problem. If they decide to ignore it, he probably defeats Democrat Jason Carter, maybe in a race a hair closer than the last two or three presidential election results in this state.
The greatest political bumper sticker of all time was the one sported by supporters of former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards in his 1991 race against Kluxer David Duke: “Vote for the crook: It’s important.” Our politics not being so flamboyant, we shouldn’t expect anything similar from Deal’s supporters, but much of the blog chatter about this race amounts to the same argument. The trick is going to be to make Carter seem as scary as Duke.
Politicians who want to bury their bad news release it on a Friday afternoon, so perhaps the timing of last week’s verdict was a stroke of good luck for Deal. But with two more whistleblower cases and a federal investigation still in the air, that’s only slight consolation.
“They try to drag me into it,” Deal told the AJC’s Greg Bluestein, “I have no involvement whatsoever.” You can almost hear the Democratic campaign ad now, citing a litany of the state’s problems with those words as a refrain.