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Nathan Deal on memo: 'Why were we all in the dark?'

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This morning, Gov. Nathan Deal went into emergency communication mode.

Minutes before his Democratic opponent, Jason Carter of Atlanta, appeared before reporters and demanded a state-level investigation by Attorney General Sam Olens or his designee, the Republican incumbent gave us an exclusive interview in which he declared that he, too, has been kept in the dark.

The governor said the bombshell ethics memo that surfaced on Monday had come as a surprise, and he asked why it hadn't been released sooner. In the memo, ethics agency director Holly LaBerge accused his staff of pressuring her -- she characterized the communications as threats -- to make campaign complaints against him disappear.

"This is an independent agency," he told us. "This was a document that was prepared by the staff of the agency, of which we had no knowledge, either. That's a good question: Why didn't it come out until now? Why were we all in the dark? I think it further proves they are an independent agency, and my office had no operational knowledge."

The governor, also said he believes his chief of staff, Chris Riley, and his executive counsel, Ryan Teague, acted appropriately in contacting LaBerge. She said in the memo she received a call from Teague and texts from Riley pushing her to wrap up the ethics complaints soon.

Said Deal:

"Certainly, I stand by them. These are some of my senior officials. And you have to understand the context in which it was done. They were trying to say, 'Let's get this thing to a hearing.' We have maintained all along that we didn't do anything wrong …

"And finally when we got it before a commission that's exactly what they determined. It was two years that this had been going on. And they were simply urging the staff to proceed in a timely fashion rather than postpone it again."

We will quibble with his phrasing here. Riley and Teague were pushing for a resolution, but the LaBerge memo indicates they were specifically attempting to avoid a public airing of any campaign law violations.

When pressed on why his staff would contact LaBerge, the governor said his staff was trying to prepare for an ethics hearing that had been delayed before. Said Deal:

"Nobody could find out what the procedure was ... My staff needed to know the answers to those questions so they could plan my schedule, so they could plan our schedule. I'm the governor of this state. It's my responsibility to govern, to run government. I can't micromanage everything. People need to act in a responsible fashion."

He added: "Why would she be on vacation and refuse to answer her phone at the week leading up to the largest hearing?"


The governor was also communicating with his supporters this morning. While the governor declared himself to be in the dark, an emailed note from Deal campaign spokesman Jen Talaber includes this, under the heading 'We saw it coming.' (Talaber says the dispatch refers to Democratic attacks - not the LaBerge memo.) To wit:

Democrats across the country are abusing our legal system for political gain, and Republican governors are targets. Here at home, Better Georgia (bankrolled by former Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes), and activist groups aligned with Jason Carter have tried to make an election year issue out of the troubles at the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission.

In fact, in a June 16 blog post, Carter's allies said they were "pleased to announce that we will be working directly with one of the commission staff members that was wrongfully terminated to bring residents the full untold story. We promise some juicy exclusives in the very near future-stay tuned!"

The only problem is, as we predicted, that the facts don't support any wrongdoing. Instead, a leaked document only now made public confirmed that, contrary to media reporting, past and present commission staff aggressively pursued allegations against the campaign. Indeed, Deal and his campaign were subjected to the highest level of scrutiny in the history of Georgia. This included a full audit of all of his disclosure reports consisting of thousands of entries with no specific formal complaint as a basis-a first for the commission.

After that extensive search, the commission dismissed all claims with the exception of an administrative fee dealing with clerical errors in campaign reports. There was no global settlement, nor does this case pertain to recent settlements between the commission's board members and ex-staffers.

About that "juicy exclusives" quote: It apparently originated with a Facebook group calling itself "Conservatives for Carter." We don't know much about them. But it was not the work of Deal's usual arch-nemesis, Better Georgia.

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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.