Political Insider

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Nathan Deal aide's strange method of blowing off ethics-related steam

Gov. Nathan Deal's chief spokesman, Brian Robinson, is known for his use of, er, colorful language when confronting critics of his boss. Now we also know he may need a few extra pillows in his first-floor Capitol office.

In an April 9 email to other Deal aides, Robinson sent a link to an Insider post detailing ethics chief Holly LaBerge's critique of the governor's ethics overhaul. Below the link were these words:

"She told the AJC that she doesn't like the governor's proposal because the commission would be too big and would outnumber the employees. I'm stuffing a pillow in my mouth to stifle my screams."

The note, obtained as part of a broader public records request, offers a glimpse at the office's attitude toward the ethics chief, who is increasingly in the middle of a campaign fight.

Remember, this memo was sent long before the now-infamous LaBerge ethics memo surfaced in public. In that memo, LaBerge claimed that Deal's staffers threatened her to make an ethics complaint "go away." (Deal's staff doesn't dispute there was contact but says there was never any threat.)

Yet in the months before the memo's release, Deal faced accusations that LaBerge was his puppet. That's partly because whistleblowers claimed she bragged that Deal "owed" her, and because his executive counsel Ryan Teague recruited her for the role. Deal has repeatedly said he didn’t know LaBerge and did nothing wrong.

When asked about the email, Robinson stuck to the same line he did after the memo was made public. He argued that it's another sign that his office never had any sway over LaBerge.

"This was one more glaring piece of evidence that she was not and never had been our pawn, but yet that was the prevailing narrative of the time. Stifled screams into a pillow is exactly how it felt. We were speaking truth but no one would listen. I think people believe us now, and I’m currently only using bedding textiles for their prescribed purpose."

More broadly, it underlines the complicated - an understatement - relationship between Deal's staff and LaBerge. It's hard to keep up with all the twists, but the latest revelation showed that LaBerge sent Deal's aides cutesy texts hours after she claimed she was pressured to settle complaints against the governor and later asked his staff for a recommendation to a vaunted program.

Democrats say the contact between the Deal aides and the ethics chief handling his complaints into his 2010 campaign demands an independent investigation. Republicans say it was harmless, akin to a defendant contacting a prosecutor ahead of a trial. Every inch in between will be ceaselessly vetted through November.

In the meantime, a suggestion: In case the governor wanted to give Robinson a wedding gift for his upcoming nuptials, might we recommend sound-proofing his office?

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About the Author

Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.