By James Salzer

The state ethics commission suspended its director with pay Tuesday amid allegations that he misused state computers.

Stefan Ritter, who has been the commission's executive director since 2015, called allegations first reported Monday by the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News "untrue," adding that he had not seen the complaints against him.

"I certainly am not going to think this is appropriate," Ritter said when asked whether he planned to fight the allegations that he misused his state computer. "I haven't even seen any allegations. It's puzzling to me."

After an hourlong executive session, the commission voted to suspend Ritter, based, as Chairman Jake Evans said, "upon the allegations of improper workplace conduct." Evans will oversee an investigation and hire outside counsel to look into the complaints made against Ritter.

"They are serious enough to warrant an independent investigation," Evans said.

The chairman did not give a timetable for finishing the investigation into the allegations.

The agency, formally known as the Georgia Government Transparency & Campaign Finance Commission, is charged with collecting campaign finance, vendor gift and lobbying expenditure reports, registering lobbyists, issuing advisory opinions, and dispensing penalties for violations.

Ritter was an 18-year veteran of the Georgia Attorney General's Office when he was unanimously chosen over three other candidates to lead the agency. He had previously been the commission's counsel and was known as an expert on Georgia's sunshine laws.

Ritter took control of the commission at a tumultuous time. The agency had been without an executive director for months after the firing of Holly LaBerge, who was sanctioned and fined for her role in a whistleblower lawsuit filed by her predecessor.

In 2015, a Fulton County jury found that her predecessor, Stacey Kalberman, had been forced from her job for investigating the campaign of Gov. Nathan Deal, and it awarded her and her attorneys $1.15 million. In June of that year, the state agreed to settle lawsuits with three other former commission employees who alleged abuse and political retaliation, bringing the total in legal fees to $3 million.

After years of inaction, a backlog of more than 150 cases was finally cleared in 2017 -- just in time for the agency to handle a slew of new complaints filed by Georgia residents, watchdog groups and political adversaries.

Ritter's pay was increased from $165,000 to $181,500 in 2016 -- a much bigger raise than most other state employees received -- after the commission lauded improvement in the agency.

The commission put off making any decisions on a series of complaints made during the 2018 campaign, not wanting to influence the elections. So 2019 is expected to be a heavy year for the panel.

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