The state ethics commission turned another page in its strange and troubled history last week, hiring longtime government attorney Stefan Ritter as its new director.
Ritter, an 18-year veteran of the Attorney General’s Office, inherits a small but highly visible office on the verge of competence.
If that seems too harsh, consider just its recent history:
- Last April, a Fulton County jury found that former executive secretary Stacey Kalberman was forced from her job for investigating the campaign of Gov. Nathan Deal, eventually awarding her and her attorneys $1.15 million.
- In June, the state agreed to settle lawsuits with three other former employees alleging abuse and political retaliation, bringing the total in legal fees to $3 million.
- In September, commissioners fired former executive secretary Holly LaBerge following a troubled two-year stint that culminated when a Fulton judge called her dishonest.
- In October, the state auditor issued a gut punch of a report that found the commission was poorly run, its staff unqualified and its decisions arbitrary.
None of this is unknown to Ritter, who routinely advised the commission on legal matters during this difficult period. Yet he is optimistic.
“I’ve watched from the distant perch of the Law Department and saw one train wreck and thought, ‘OK, we’re past that, we’ve got a new train.’ And then there would be a new train wreck,” he said.
Ritter believes this latest train can stay on track, largely built on progress made since the hiring of two new staff attorneys shortly before LaBerge’s exit.
“I think I can make a difference here,” Ritter said. “I’m going to give it a shot anyway.”
State leaders have shown confidence, too. Deal and the General Assembly nearly doubled the office’s budget to $2.6 million and authorized the hiring of four attorneys and four investigators.
Thanks to the state audit, Ritter comes in with a blueprint on how to improve. The audit, which was requested by the commissioners themselves, lists 17 specific shortcomings ranging from ineffective oversight of campaign committees to complicated computer problems to high staff turnover rates.
The commission, formally known as the Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, has regulatory authority over political spending by local and state campaigns and committees and also oversees the registration and spending reports of hundreds of lobbyists. The audit found it did virtually nothing well, but Commission Chairwoman Hillary Stringfellow said a lot of progress has been made since LaBerge was dismissed.
For exampled, auditors found the commission’s computer system incorrectly flagged some filings as late, leading to fines being levied against candidates or lobbyists. Stringfellow said the commission’s information technology department has been working to “refine their systems” to iron out the bugs, something she said Ritter will continue to work on.
The filing process has been a particular problem for the Georgia Municipal Association (GMA), the lobbying group for mayors and council members across the state. GMA pushed legislation this year that would have required the commission to prove local officials intentionally failed to file on time before they could be fined.
The legislation did not pass before the end of the legislative session last month, but GMA spokeswoman Amy Henderson said she hopes Ritter and the commissioners will clear out all of the old outstanding fines and move on.
“Instead of trying to wade through this big backlog of cases to figure out what is legitimate and what is not legitimate our hope is a clean slate, let’s move forward,” she said, hopefully. “To be going back through and wading through whether something is a computer error or what happened doesn’t seem a good use of their time.”
Ritter said the commission is going to have to deal with the audit findings and agreed with Stringfellow that the post-LaBerge commission has made progress.
“The new staff has done an excellent job. I’m delighted with that,” he said.
Stringfellow offered more vague assessments of progress made on some of the other problems discovered by auditors. Other findings she plainly disagreed with.
For instance, state law requires the commission to make sure that each of the thousands of reports filed every year are accurate, but the commission has only just begun auditing a fraction. Auditors said the commission should look at the resources it needs to obey this law, but Stringfellow said it is not worth studying.
“It is not an option to review every filing for accuracy and no effort will be undertaken or considered to have a staff member review every filing,” she said.
The auditors recommended the commission establish policies determining how long an investigation into an ethics complaint should take. Stringfellow declined, saying “there is not a typical investigation time.”
Stringfellow said it will be up to Ritter to make further progress on many of the audit findings. That’s fine with many observers who have confidence in him.
“He is one of the few people that never, ever, ever played politics,” former commission director Rick Thompson, who resigned in late 2009 to start a consulting business, said. “He went after everybody.”
Ritter will, however, have “to get out of lawyer mode and into being an executive of an agency,” Thompson said.
Even though Ritter is a career government lawyer — that is, not a political lawyer — he understands the political realities at play, Thompson said.
“He’ll be somewhat aggressive, but not crazy stupid,” Thompson said. “He’ll be able to determine if someone did something on purpose or if it’s an administrative, technical error. That will bring reliability and the necessary respect to the commission. He’ll be fair to everybody.”
Rep. Joe Wilkinson, R-Dunwoody, the chairman of the House Ethics Committee, said Ritter’s reputation is stellar.
“Talk about someone who knows the agency inside and out,” Wilkinson, who defended LaBerge against critics for months, said. “He has such a well-deserved and well-earned reputation.”
Others, though, are being more circumspect. William Perry, executive director of watchdog group Common Cause Georgia, said while he’s cautiously optimistic, Ritter needs to prove he can keep the commission moving forward after years of turmoil.
“He has the credentials that are needed to lead this organization,” Perry, who attended last week’s commission meeting where Ritter was hired, said. “The ball is in his court now to lead the commission at his discretion.”
Perry said he continues to believe the commission needs further reform, but that will have to be done by Deal and the Legislature.
Currently the commission is made up of political appointments by the governor and legislative leaders. In his 2014 reelection campaign, Deal promised to remake the commission, expanding it by adding appointees named by the state’s top judges. When the office started to improve, Deal backed off and said he would take a wait-and-see approach.
Perry said Deal should make good on his promise. At a meeting of the Atlanta Press Club, Perry and Deal sparred over the commission, with Perry comparing Deal to “the guy bringing a water bucket to a house fire.”
Deal shot back: “Give (Ritter) time to unpack his boxes, and get in his office, and figure out who his staff is, and find out where his bathroom is, to find out the things he may recommend to the General Assembly and the governor’s office. I think we owe him the courtesy.”
Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this report.