ATLANTA -- State Sen. Cecil Staton, R-Macon, will cede his duties as Senate whip for the remainder of the legislative session, as he’s embroiled in a dispute over the authorship of a scandalous series of e-mails.
Staton’s deputy, Sen. Greg Goggans, R-Douglas, will act as majority whip through Thursday, the end of the session. Staton, through a spokesman, emphasized that most of the whip’s work is done for the year.
The spokesman said that because a mysterious e-mail scandal is a possible “distraction,” Staton took the action of stepping down as party whip.
The issue began Tuesday, when a GOP supporter and sometime strategist from Clarke County presented a report that he says suggests Staton is behind a recent series of impassioned e-mails accusing some Senate Republicans such as Lt. Gov Casey Cagle of “evil” and dishonor for allegedly allying with Democrats in a power play. The e-mails are signed “Beth Merkleson,” who paints herself as a loyal, angry Republican.
The accuser, Arch Adams, said he went fishing for the author of the Beth Merkleson e-mails because he was distressed by their “manipulative” content.
Adams’ report claims he e-mailed some practically unique website links to both Staton and Merkleson’s e-mail boxes. Then, both those links were clicked within the e-mail boxes. Adams’ report indicates that both clicks from both e-mail boxes came from the same Internet connection -- technically, an “IP address” signified by a set of numbers -- within the same 19 minutes this past Saturday.
“Technically this means Cecil Staton is Beth Merkleson or that they were sharing the same Internet connection,” wrote Adams.
But it’s hard to prove any electronic allegations. Every Internet connection comes with an IP address. Someone who is savvy enough can figure out the IP address of an Internet connection. But the report rests on Adams’ statement that both pieces of traffic -- Staton’s and Merkleson’s -- really came from the same address at nearly the same time.
Adams said Staton has some explaining to do. Staton’s spokesman said an IT expert is looking into the e-mails and that the senator will make no further comment until that investigation is finished. No date has been set for the end of the investigation.
Among the targets in the Merkleson e-mails are Sen. Ross Tolleson, R-Perry, and Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford. Tolleson is called a “traitor” and Unterman is called a “turncoat” who allies with Democrats.
“I find it egregious to be called a turncoat,” Unterman commented Wednesday afternoon at the Capitol. She noted she’s been a Republican for her entire political career, more than two decades.
“The GOP caucus needs to identify who those (e-mails) came from,” she said, and apply some kind of sanctions if it’s an insider.
On the Adams report, she said she’s waiting for a forensic IT audit.
“Innocent until proven guilty,” she said.
As for Merkleson, the Georgia Department of Driver Services finds no drivers license on record under the name Beth Merkleson or Elizabeth Merkleson. The Merkleson e-mails have been coming from firstname.lastname@example.org for the past few days. They appear to be written by someone with public, but unusually detailed, knowledge of business under the gold dome, such as joint committee appointments, Cagle’s position on a hospital tax bill from last year, and the legal boilerplate it takes to file a Senate resolution.
The Merkleson author claims to be from a place “not far” from the state Capitol and to have volunteered for both her senator and her representative this year.
Unterman said she’s been receiving the Merkleson e-mails, but there was not one Tuesday morning, the day after the Adams report.
There has indeed been a GOP power struggle in the Senate since last year, when Cagle was stripped of some of his legislative powers by his Senate colleagues. He and Staton are considered to be on opposite sides of the divide.
A spokesman for Cagle’s office called the allegations against Staton “troubling,” adding that Cagle trusts the GOP caucus to make any investigation or take any action necessary.