Bethany Whetzel and Robert Lane have been hired by the state ethics commission as staff attorneys. (John Disney/Daily Report)
Correction Appended Below
During a tumultuous time headlined by several whistleblower lawsuits brought by former employees who claimed they were fired for investigating the governor, the state ethics commission has hired two new staff attorneys.
Robert Lane, previously an associate at Henrickson & Sereebutra in Paulding County, and Bethany Whetzel, formerly senior counsel at the state Department of Corrections, joined the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission in July. The two are tasked with analyzing complaints against elected officials.
The pair, who responded to inquiries from the Daily Report via email, didn’t comment when asked how they felt about joining the commission given its history of staffing problems and tension between the commissioners and agency management.
Both of the new picks are still early in their careers, although they have backgrounds in government law.
Lane, who earned his law degree from the University of Georgia in 2007, handled a range of civil litigation matters while in private practice, often serving as lead counsel in family, business and estate law cases, according to his résumé. He occasionally defended clients charged with misdemeanors.
Prior to his private practice, Lane worked as a senior staff attorney for Paulding County Superior Court judges James Osborne and Kenneth Vinson and as an assistant solicitor in Clayton County.
Lane said he was interested in working for the ethics commission because it would be a return to public service. He also said he has “always had a keen interest in political, election and campaign finance law.”
Suzanne Henrickson, who supervised Lane’s work at her firm, said he had “a political mind.”
“I think the position he accepted with the state ethics commission aligns with his personal interest in politics and his professionalism,” she said.
Whetzel earned her law degree from Mercer University in 2010 and went to work for the corrections department as assistant counsel in 2011. In between, she earned an LL.M. in taxation from Georgetown University.
Whetzel said she was interested in working for the ethics commission because it would allow her to relocate to Atlanta from Forsyth. Her new job, she added, is somewhat familiar.
“During my employment with Corrections, I worked closely with the Office of Investigations and Compliance. Part of my job was to review investigations—whether they concerned employment matters, inmate complaints or possible illegal activity,” Whetzel said. “Through this review, I learned how to identify what information is needed to substantiate allegations.”
Whetzel was also the corrections department’s Open Records Act attorney. Responding to records requests taught her “the importance of following up, managing deadlines, maintaining files and good internal and external customer service,” she said in her job application cover letter to the ethics commission.
The lawyers arrive at the commission during a difficult time. In April, former executive secretary Stacey Kalberman, a lawyer, won a $700,000 verdict plus attorneys fees in Fulton County Superior Court in her wrongful termination suit. Kalberman was replaced by current executive secretary Holly LaBerge in 2011, shortly after the office issued subpoenas seeking records in Gov. Nathan Deal’s 2010 campaign.
In June, the commission settled whistle-blower cases brought by other former commission staffers: $1 million to former deputy secretary Sherry Streicker, $410,000 for former IT specialist John Hair and $477,500 to former staff attorney Elisabeth Murray-Obertein.
LaBerge, meanwhile, has asserted whistle­blower protection after making public a memo she drafted detailing alleged pressure by the governor’s top aides to quietly settle complaints against Deal’s campaign without a hearing. LaBerge’s attorney, A. Lee Parks Jr., has said LaBerge feels she is being unfairly targeted in an ongoing audit of the state agency. Parks also has alluded to a federal investigation of the agency’s handling of Deal’s case.
In the midst of the political storm, the agency also has come under fire for poor management and inefficient operations. In January, Murray-Obertein, the sole attorney employed at the time, was placed on administrative leave and then fired following an incident in which a state trooper was called to the commission office on a report that she was intoxicated.
LaBerge said she doesn’t believe the turmoil discouraged potential applicants.
“Absolutely not,” LaBerge said. “We had some phenomenal applicants.”
The ethics commission received more than 200 résumés for the positions, she said. When the posting expired, LaBerge whittled the stack down to 20, and commission members added another name, she said.
LaBerge and two commissioners—lawyers Heath Garrett and R. Lawton Jordan III—interviewed 14 of the 21 candidates face-to-face.
After the first round of interviews, LaBerge and the two commissioners agreed on the top five candidates, LaBerge said. Before they could be called in for a second interview, LaBerge said, two of the finalists withdrew.
The job posting lists the position’s annual salary range as $43,063.23 to $75,523.31. Neither Lane nor Whetzel would disclose their pay to the Daily Report, and LaBerge said she doesn’t keep that information.
This story has been changed to reflect the following correction: The Aug. 12 article, “State Ethics Commission Hires 2 New Staff Lawyers,” incorrectly reported the role played by ethics commission executive secretary Holly LaBerge in hiring former staff attorney Elisabeth Murray-Obertein, as well as the date of the hiring. LaBerge said she was involved in the hiring process that brought Murray-Obertein on board in December 2011.