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Georgia Judge Issues $20,000 Sanction for Whistleblower Suit Discovery Violation

A Georgia state court ordered the state Attorney General and head of the state ethics commission to each pay $10,000 as sanctions for discovery violations in a whistleblower suit filed by the former executive director of the Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission (ethics commission).

While head of the ethics commission, Stacey Kalberman was forced out of office in 2011 after she sought subpoenas for Governor Nathan Deal and others in an investigation into Deal’s 2012 campaign spending. In April 2014, a jury awarded Kalberman $700,000 in damages and $450,000 in attorney fees and costs following that verdict, the state agreed to pay more than $1.8 million to three other former commission employees who alleged retaliatory firing.

Leading up to the trial, Kalberman’s attorneys requested production of any memorandum, email, or text that showed Deal’s office was pressuring the ethics commission to drop the investigation. No such documents were produced, which decreased Kalberman’s charges to reach a pretrial settlement, increase the jury’s award, and prevented her from forcing Deal to testify.

In July, Holly LaBarge, the current head of the ethics commission, went to the media to allege that two of Deal’s underlings, Chief of staff Chris Riley and Chief of Counsel Ryan Teague, had “threatened” her to drop the investigation. LaBarge kept a copy of the communications in a locked drawer of her office, but she never disclosed them while Kalberman’s suit was pending. On August 8, Kalberman’s attorneys moved to impose sanctions for the discovery violation.

In granting the motion, the court was highly critical of LaBarge. “Rather than erring on the side of transparency and a fair resolution of the legal issues raised in this matter, the [law] department chose non-disclosure and defendant LaBarge chose, purportedly for her own reasons, secrecy and document hiding.” wrote Fulton County Superior Court Judge Ural Glanville in a September 3, 2014, ruling. “Although the court is aware that the imposition of monetary sanctions causes more pain to the citizens of Georgia, who are forced to bear the continued burden resulting from the events giving rise to the above-captioned case, the court has no other recourse from the events giving rise to the above captioned case, the court has no other recourse when faced with the conduct of the Department, and most appallingly, defendant LaBarge, who has repeatedly proved herself to be dishonest and non-transparent.”

The court’s order required Attorney General Sam Olens to pay $10,000 and for LaBarge to pay the same amount in her personal capacity. The $20,000 award, the court found, represents the reasonable litigation expenses associated with the instant motion. The law department issued a statement that it is reviewing its legal options; LaBarge’s attorney said she will appeal from the order.


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